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Cow Longevity: A Concept For Sustainable Food Production

08 July 2014

Extending the productive life of cows and increasing overall productivity is central to the future of milk production.

This is the mantra of DeLaval dairy development director Dr Charlotte Hallen-Sandgren whose vision for DeLaval is to drive for sustainable food production by farming for cow longevity.

Reducing diseases, investing in cows when they are developing heifers and catering for the cow's welfare are all factors tasks that, if done well, can save the farmer money and reduce the farm's environmental impact.

Cow longevity caters for what Dr Hallen-Sandgren calls the 'four pillars' of sustainable dairy farming, which are; supporting animal health and welfare, improving farm profitability, managing social responsibility and improving environmental performance

Key Messages

• The controlled replacement of old cows with young, healthy and productive first-time calvers is the motor of the dairy farmer’s every day struggle to stay profitable.
• On a yearly basis 35 - 40 per cent of the cows in the herd are replaced. Of these, 70 – 80 per cent are involuntary culled due to health, predominantly mastitis and lameness, or fertility problems. 15-30 per cent of the involuntary culled cows leave the herd during their first two months of lactation, and up to 25 per cent of the involuntary culled die or are euthanized.
• It takes at least one lactation for the farmer to recover the investment in buying and/or rearing a calf or a heifer.
• Increasing the herd’s average productive life time by keeping the cows in the herd for another healthy lactation would increase the average life time productivity per day with approximately 13 per cent . This corresponds to an increase in profitability of 110 Euro or 150 USD per each cow in the herd and year.
• The underlying health problems (top three are mastitis, infertility and lameness) lead producers to cull their animals at high cost. As an example, lameness costs 220 Euro or 300 USD per case and average prevalence often exceeds 20 per cent .
• Culling and deaths in early lactation cost up to 740 Euro or 1000 USD per case (not including losses in milk yield due to preceding disease, labor etc). Efforts to reduce death rates and to improve early lactation health are therefore very profitable.
• Recent findings show that as much as 670 Euro or 890 USD per cow and year can be saved by moving a herd from 10 per cent lowest to the best 10 per cent in regards to cow mortality.
• Providing excellent cow comfort and management practices, supporting animal health, welfare and productivity will not only improve the same but will also improve profitability and quality of life for the people working in dairy production. It also improves the public image as well as reduces the environmental impact of dairy production.
• Increased longevity is most often associated with increased profitability, but not always. In situations where cows leave the herd due to bad fertility, high calf mortality or late age at first calving the herd may end up with old, broken and unprofitable cows.

Background

Improved longevity usually means higher profit per cow, as the cash flow of production pays off the investment made in raising the replacement animals, writes Dr Hallen-Sandgren.

Ideally, a herd of healthy productive cows is maintained, and culling happens due to economic reasons, and not so-called involuntary culling. In addition we need to recognize that market issues also affect herd turnover rates.

The controlled replacement of old cows with young, healthy and productive first-time calvers is the motor of the dairy farmer’s every day struggle to stay profitable. A dairy farmer´s aspiration would probably sound something like:

“Each cow should leave the herd healthy at a pre-planned point in time, preferably by the end of lactation. As she is healthy she gives full return on investment through her carcass meat and a more profitable, newly calved cow raised on the farm replaces her directly.”

Indeed, there are some farms reaching this aspired situation but in most cases the reality is far from it. In many places around the world the average productive life length of a dairy cow stays at 2,5 lactations or even lower, reflecting that 35 - 40 per cent of the cows are replaced on a yearly basis.

Of these, 70 – 80 per cent are culled involuntary due to health (predominantly mastitis and lameness) or fertility problems. 15 - 30 per cent leave the herd before two months of lactation and up to 25 per cent die or are euthanized (Fig 1).

Apart from obvious negative welfare consequences and use of veterinary medicines associated to these disturbances, they also influence farm profitability and economic sustainability due to considerable economical losses.

Figure 1. Timing of culling in Ontario dairy herds in two years of DHIA data x-axis = Days in milk; y-axis = Number of cows culled

Longevity and Profitability

On many dairy farms around the world it has become common practice to enter all own heifers into the herd, and the availability of such heifers might prevent the producer from seeing the high value of healthy animals that can be kept longer instead of having lower-yielding first-time calvers enter the herd. Normally it takes at least one lactation for the heifer to earn back the costs she has created.

An additional healthy lactation increases the amount of time available for the cow to pay back the investment in rearing her (15-20 per cent of the total expenses related to milk production) and start generating a profit.

With the investment in raising a herd replacement, a long productive herd life is of course advantageous to recover the investment and return a profit to the dairy operation.

Increasing the herd’s average productive life time by keeping the cows in the herd for another healthy lactation, would in a “normal” situation increase the average life time productivity per day with 13 per cent . This corresponds to an increase in profitability of 110 Euro or 150 USD per cow in the herd and year, everything else the same.

On top of this, the underlying health problems leading producers to cull their animals are costly. In a Canadian study the cost of lameness was estimated to 220 Euro or 300 USD per case (www.gov.mb.ca).

The involuntary culling is only the tip of the iceberg; the actual prevalence of the underlying problems can be considerably higher. In Canada, about 2 per cent of all cows are reported as culled due to lameness, but the actual prevalence is above 20 per cent . Costs of lameness thus being many times higher than revealed by the number of cows culled due to lameness.

A considerable number of cows also leave the herd early in lactation due to metabolic health reasons, and the risk of death is also greatest in early lactation. In fact the most common “reason” for a cow to leave the herd in the US is death, comprising 21 per cent of the turnover of cows! In the US involuntary culling and deaths in early lactation cost up to 740 Euro or 1000 USD per involuntary culled cow, not including losses in milk yield due to preceding disease, labor etc. Efforts to reduce death rates and to improve early lactation health are therefore very profitable.

The differences between herds are immense and it is obvious that it can be very profitable for many producers to improve health and increase the productive lifetime of their cows.

A recent Danish study showed that 670 Euro or 890 USD per cow in the herd can be saved by moving a herd from 10 per cent lowest to the best 10 per cent in terms of cow mortality (Fig 2). In fact, the economic potential for decreasing mortality was very close to the potential for increased milk yield, implying that high cow mortality is telling a lot about profitability and management of the herd.

Figure 2. Economic potential comparing the 10 per cent best with the 10 per cent lowest herds in Denmark (Hermansen, 2013)

Longevity and Animal Welfare

The high rates of involuntary culling, particularly mortality, and losses in early lactation are signs of poor animal welfare. Removing the causes of involuntary culling, the three main causes being “infertility”, mastitis and lameness, will significantly improve animal welfare.

Science has shown that best management practices can result in significant improvements in animal welfare and farm profitability. A challenge is getting the existing knowledge and information implemented by the dairy farmers.

Culling because of poor animal health and welfare is just as prominent in countries with a milk production in a less mature stage of development. However, with a higher impact of other diseases and injuries, perhaps pointing at a possible link with biosecurity risks, which is even more important in these countries.

Sickness and injury are obvious welfare problems, and lameness is widely recognized as the most serious welfare problem for dairy cows. Recently, the European Food Safety Authority concluded that reproductive failure, especially if this is due to health problems, can also be an indicator of poor welfare. Thus it is likely that high rates of involuntary culling on a farm indicate a poor level of animal welfare.

Calf illness and mortality is also an often over looked contributor to reduced longevity. Poor calf management and a compromised welfare during this period also have a negative impact on the cow’s later productivity. In fact, there is reason to believe that calf and cow mortality together with reproductive failures are proxies for poor welfare. Mortality per se is, by the scientific community, considered as a welfare problem of its own.

Although an overall aim is to reduce involuntary culling this not be done by discouraging producers from culling animals that are obviously ill. When overall culling rates are high, a farm may have difficulty producing enough replacement heifers to maintain herd size, so that many chronically diseased animals which should be euthanized on humane grounds, remain in the herd, which is itself an animal welfare problem.

Longevity and Social Responsibility

All welfare issues associated to culling and death are of course also possible sources of bad publicity. Dairy cows that are dead or culled for animal welfare reasons are also one of the main sources of bad publicity for dairy production, when, for example, they are transported in a bad condition. Thus, animal welfare standards for dairy cows should focus upon reducing the occurrence (and having better treatment for) culled dairy cows.

This is also about providing excellent cow comfort and management supporting animal productivity and health, thereby indirectly improving quality of life for the people working there. When barns are designed bearing cows in mind, this will also improve the quality of life for the people working there. Then Animal welfare goes hand in hand with Social responsibility and Profitability!

Last but not least it has to be mentioned that housing and management improving health and longevity will most likely contribute to decreased need of antibiotics, which of course is another societal benefit.

Longevity and Environmental Sustainability

As a parallel to the effect of increased longevity on profitability per cow, also less green house gas emissions and effluents will be produced per kg of milk. Hence, the environmental impact of dairy production is reduced when the longevity of each cow and the efficiency of milk production are improved.

Moreover, diseases as such are not only responsible for involuntary culling, but also have a clear negative impact on the cow’s productivity and longevity, thereby reducing the overall efficiency of milk production and increasing the environmental footprint of the dairy industry over all.

References

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