Everything you need to know about successful cow health monitoring
A field full of cows chewing away is a joyous sight for any dairy farmer. Those constantly-churning jaw muscles are one of the surest signs that all is well on the farm. On the other hand, spotting just one cow lying to the side, ears lowered, eyes dull and jaw immobile can send you into a tailspin of worry. As a hardworking dairy farmer, your goal is to produce as abundant a supply of high-quality, nutritious milk as you possibly can, and to achieve this, you need healthy cows. The cow is the prize player on your farm and by meeting her needs you simultaneously advance your own financial and productivity goals. Even if you invested in high-quality feed, sophisticated milking equipment, and comfortable living conditions, if something is bothering your cows, your profits will plummet. A little overcrowding, an excess of dirt in the barn, a bad feed-batch, or a rampant parasite can wreak havoc on cow wellbeing. Despite your best efforts, sickness can strike at any moment.
In order to achieve optimal milk production all year round, you need a reliable method to detect and prevent diseases as early as possible. This means being constantly vigilant to the signs of deteriorating health. On the modern-day farm, there are various ways to do this – both traditional and technological – each with advantages and disadvantages.
In this article, we review the current best practices in cow health monitoring.
Visual and Sensory Signs of a Sick Cow
An authority on cow health wrote ‘a good calf rearer knows which calves are going to be sick tomorrow or next week.’ He didn’t mean that a good dairy farmer can see into the future, rather that a highly experienced cow-rearer knows what to look out for and can tell when a cow is sick or about to sicken.
Dairy cattle continuously transmit signals about wellbeing and health through their behavior, activity levels, posture, and other physical signs like eye brightness or ear position. These can be discerned through deep observation; a quick glance will not suffice. Cows also transmit physiological signs, such as breathing rate, heart rate, and concentration of blood metabolites. To measure these signs farmers need specialized equipment Early signs of sickness are usually subtle and difficult for less experienced farmworkers to pick up on. A seasoned dairy farmer is highly attuned to seemingly minute signs like walking speed, withdrawal, and rumination speed. With more hands-on observation techniques, they can also pick up whether a cow is running a fever or if their breath has the sweet sickly smell indicative of ketosis.
If your staff have the right level of experience, you can monitor cow health and wellbeing by observing these physical cues but be aware that it is extremely time-consuming – especially on farms with several hundred or even thousands of cows. Without the equipment needed to analyze other signs such as blood or milk composition, you are not really getting the most accurate data possible. Fortunately, in today’s age of technological farming, there is another way.
Rumination - The Window Into Cow health
Cows can look comical with their jaws in almost constant motion but this activity is actually one of the most important indicators of cow health. A healthy cow spends many of her waking hours ruminating (8-9 hours), otherwise known as chewing the cud. The rumen is the first of five digestive chambers and the one where fermentation takes place. Inside the rumen, microbes break down the cow’s food, converting it into the fatty acids and amino acids which are the basis of a healthy milk supply. The higher the quality of the feed and the more effective and continuous the rumination, the better the quality and volume of the milk supply.
Numerous studies have revealed a potent link between rumination and good health. A healthy rumination process is the cornerstone of a healthy cow and a drop in rumination is often the most telling sign that something isn’t right. As such, continuously monitoring rumination activity is one of the best things a dairy farmer can do to accurately detect disease. It is also one of the simplest things to track with the right equipment.
Two Metrics Are Better Than One!
While continuously monitoring rumination provides useful data for farmers, monitoring rumination alongside another metric can be even more informative. Studies have shown that by monitoring eating time (i.e. how long the cow feeds for) alongside rumination activity, farmers can identify cows who may be sickening, with a greater degree of accuracy than by tracking one metric alone.
Electronic Rumination Monitoring
Fortunately, it’s not difficult to monitor rumination in this technological age. All the data you need can be gathered using a standalone cow monitoring system that continuously collects rumination and eating data via a collar worn around the cow’s neck. Data is transmitted to an easy-to-read platform that farmers can readily access from any computer or even from a mobile phone for easy and continuous motoring at any time of day. This non-invasive method is probably one of the simplest technology investments dairy farmers can make to produce fast and easily trackable results.
Afimilk’s new cow collar for continuous monitoring tracks the gold standard two metrics – rumination and eating patterns – as well as the two metrics combined. The neck collar is easy to deploy and comfortable to wear for milk cows, dry cows, and heifers. Using technology to track these metrics has distinct advantages over using sensory means. It does not require specialized skills, can be done continuously even when staff are not in the barn, and is highly accurate – as proven by several studies. As well as providing data about individual cow health, the systems can also provide great insight into group herd behavior and health. Read more about this here.
Identifying Cows at risk of Disease
Health disorders not only negatively affect the wellbeing of dairy cows but are also associated with significant economic losses to the farm. With a cow monitoring system such as Aficollar, farmers can be alerted as soon as there is a drop in rumination or a change in the regular eating patterns. As changes in rumination and eating behavior can be triggered by anything from a change in feed quality, to deteriorating living conditions, a parasite, or a more serious illness such as ketosis acidosis or a retained placenta, farmers
will not know the precise cause of the change without further investigation. However, just knowing that a cow is not in peak health before she enters the milking parlor is valuable time-saving information as farmers know ahead of time which cows to take aside for further checking.
Let’s Not Forget Dry Cows!
Cows that are being dried in preparation for calving are often at risk of slipping through the net if a health problem were to develop. As they do not need to make regular appearances in the milking parlor, they are usually left to their own devices in the barn, where they may not receive the high-level of daily surveillance given to the milking herd. On a regular farm, where a technological cow-monitoring solution is not deployed, sickness in dry cows may well go undetected until a much later stage. This is something that will not happen if rumination and eating surveillance is in place. Even cows that are not regularly checked – such as dry cows – will be flagged up in the system as soon as rumination or eating changes, giving farmers greater peace of mind about all their cattle.
Early Detection, Early Intervention
In most cases, by the time visual or sensory signs of disease are present, the disease has already advanced. One of the greatest advantages of stand-alone cow monitoring is that it can alert farmers to the presence of a potential health problem early, thereby allowing them to take prompt steps to remedy it. Early intervention means problems with both individual cows and groups as a whole c an be nipped in the bud before they develop into a more serious problem. Early intervention also maximizes the efficacy of treatment thus causing minimal damage to milk production, cow fertility, and in some cases, mortality. Whether a cow is suffering from one of the many common health conditions that often strike dairy cattle – such as ketosis, mastitis, Subclinical Ruminal Acidosis (SARA ) – or whether an environmental factor, such as crowding in the barn, has caused their distress, prompt treatment will allow cows to return to their usual good health and maximum productivity as early as possible.
All farmers want the healthiest herd possible. Early detection and early prevention of diseases are the cornerstones of keeping cows healthy and productive. In a busy farm with multiple cattle and staff members with varying degrees of expertise and training, the most efficient way to ensure accurate disease detection and prevention is to deploy a device that tracks rumination and eating data in real-time, both in individual cows and in groups. The powerful combination of these metrics together has been scientifically proven to be the best indicator of a variety of health conditions. Stand-alone cow monitoring with electronic tagging is also less labor-intensive and more accurate than relying on visual and sensory cues alone giving you greater freedom and more peace of mind that your cows are as healthy, happy, and productive as can be. A new era of farming has been ushered in with the widespread dissemination of electronic equipment that upgrades, streamlines, and improves farming efficiency and farmers’ lifestyles. Rumination and eating tracking is an ideal and simple entry-point for farmers wishing to understand how technology can boost their experience and profitability.