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One herd, many management needs

Gláucio Lopes Published on 16 October 2015

A dairy herd is made up of many segments – individual cows, pens of cows, herd cohorts (transition cows, for example) and the herd as a whole. At the same time, each of these segments has independent and interdependent management requirements.

This reality means dairy managers must sift through a significant amount of data since necessary information is not always easily obtained or separated out by desired herd segments.

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To overcome this challenge, a growing number of dairies have invested in animal monitoring technology that tracks rumination and activity at the same time, giving these operations an edge in accomplishing their goals. The data can be readily used to manage each herd segment as well as see the impact on the entire herd at the same time.

On-farm perspective

The owner of a 600-cow California herd felt something wasn’t quite right with his herd performance but couldn’t put his finger on the problem.

Milk production, reproductive performance and overall health parameters ranked above industry averages, but he felt the herd could achieve more.

Determined to increase herd productivity, he invested in an animal monitoring system last year.

The data provided by the system extends the operation’s insight into the inner workings of the animals, offering a glimpse into health and performance before physical indicators appear.

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As a result, the dairy is able to intervene when necessary and can often prevent issues from becoming significant problems.

That means as the dairy monitors and interacts with individual cows, it is able to assess the impact of management actions and decisions on all other herd segments.

Monitor trends

The key to these systems is not total minutes ruminating, or total activity, but the deviation from an established baseline – which can be noted on a per-cow basis, for a group, among cohorts and for the entire herd.

For example, a dairy will track rumination time across the herd, within and between pens, and then focus on individual cow data to assess the effectiveness of specific strategies or activities.

By watching trends and extracting details in the data, the California dairy found that a seemingly simple management activity was having a significant, and negative, impact on individual cows, the prefresh group and overall herd performance.

One too many actions

During daily rumination tracking, the dairy owner noticed that when he moved dry cows from the far-off pen to the close-up, the cows experienced a significant drop in rumination.

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The dairy had followed this practice for years, with seemingly little impact on the cows from outward appearances. The dip in rumination was not anticipated – nor was its impact on the herd.

While some change should be expected, the dairy owner noted that there was a steep, straight drop in rumination following this pen move, and all of the cows showed up on daily health reports.

Furthermore, health issues at calving likely resulting from previously undiagnosed problems during this time frame were a challenge. This is not surprising, since cows with inconsistent rumination during the transition period are often afflicted with more health problems.

The dairy frequently recorded a higher-than-desired level of cows calving early, which led to increased incidence of retained placenta and metritis and, ultimately, reduced reproductive performance in the following lactation.

Independent research adds weight to the dairy’s concerns about this health challenge. Recent research at the University of Florida that was presented at the 2015 American Dairy Science Association Annual Meeting shows that cows with shorter gestation show:

  • Increased disease incidence in the first 90 days in milk (primarily driven by occurrence of stillbirth, retained fetal membranes and metritis)
  • Higher risk of removal from the herd through death or culling
  • A decrease of 1,102 pounds of milk in the following lactation

At the dairy, the pen move and a ration change offered some explanation for the inconsistent rumination and health issues, but the dairy owner wasn’t satisfied with those answers – or the performance results. “I thought things could be better,” he says.

Further investigation helped pinpoint the problem. For labor efficiency, in addition to the pen move and ration change, cows also received vaccinations at the same time.

The combination of all three management actions at once was too much, causing significant disruption to the cows even though the dairy didn’t see physical warning signs.

“The technology really helped us see the impact of these stressors on the individual cows and the group,” says the dairy producer.

Improved performance results

To fix the issue, the dairy’s team moved the vaccination protocol one week earlier, giving cows time to adapt to that stress and recover prior to moving to a new pen and ration.

As a result, the drop in rumination time following the pen move is not as significant – it’s more of a gradual downward curve – and the cows bounce back within a day.

Furthermore, since the management change, the dairy has experienced far fewer cases of retained placenta, and instead of 25 to 30 percent of cows calving early, that number has dropped to around 5 percent.

“We also eliminated cows on the health list during the pen move,” reports the owner.

The results are long-lasting for individual cows, the transition group and the herd. The dairy has sustained an overall herd average of 90 pounds of milk or more for a much longer period of time than ever before.

“Last fall, our herd 21-day pregnancy rate was four percentage points higher than the same period the year prior,” the dairy owner says. Overall herd pregnancy rate is up 2 percent on an annual basis, pushing the dairy to nearly 30 percent.

The dairy producer concludes that the system was installed to give the operation a competitive edge – and that objective has been accomplished thanks to the ability to better monitor and manage the herd and its segments.  PD

References omitted due to space but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

Gláucio Lopes
  • Gláucio Lopes

  • Large Herd Manager
  • Repro Specialist
  • SCR Dairy Inc.
  • Email Gláucio Lopes

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