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Dairy Today Healthline

How to Find and Manage Cows in the “Gray” Area

May 15, 2014

A cow’s health may be just a bit "off," although you may not see it. These animals will benefit greatly from early interventions.

By Shane St. Cyr, SCR Dairy Field Support Manager

Animal health seems pretty straightforward. A cow is either sick or she’s healthy, right?

As any dairy manager knows, a cow’s health status is not always so clear-cut or so black and white. A certain percentage of animals at any given time fall into a health status "gray area."

These animals do not show visual signs of illness, but they aren’t performing at full strength either. They’re just a bit "off," even though you may not be able to see it. These are the cows that benefit greatly from early interventions.

It may be less complicated to simply sort animals into "sick" or "well" categories, but not all cows fit neatly into these categories because not all health indicators are easily seen by the human eye.

Symptom Lag

There have been many studies documenting that fresh cow disease is preceded by non-specific symptoms as much as five to 10 days prior to the onset of specific clinical signs.

Some can be seen or visually measured like: elevated core body temperature, reduced activity, drop in milk production, decline in dry matter intake and change in milk composition (fat-to-protein ratios greater than 1.4). All of these are signals that indicate a need for immediate attention.1

Meanwhile, other important health-status indicators, such as time spent ruminating, are not so readily apparent, which is why astute managers are turning their focus toward this important parameter and moving away from the black-and-white mindset of animal health.

Rumination Information

Data available via rumination monitoring technology enable users to track rumination levels, which is an early indicator of potential health and performance challenges. An animal’s rumination will often drop 24 hours or more prior to the appearance of physical symptoms, such as decreased feed intake or a reduction in milk production.

Monitoring cows for activity, rumination and temperature can really help with early detection of health disorders, says Marcia Endres, University of Minnesota Extension dairy scientist. "Treating cows earlier will help prevent large drops in production and reduce cow mortality on the farm," she says, adding that access to this actionable data is critical from an animal welfare perspective, as well as a management perspective.

Health Implications

While a "gray" health scenario can occur at any age or any stage of lactation, it commonly occurs during transition—the three weeks prior to and three weeks following calving. This is when cows are most vulnerable to disease and metabolic disorders due to the many social, environmental and physiological changes that take place during this time frame.

Cows often fail to adapt to these metabolic and management changes, resulting in 75% of dairy cow disease incidence during the first month after calving and substantial economic losses to the dairy industry.2

Also, one-third of dairy cows may be affected by some form of metabolic or infectious disease in early lactation.3

The ability to head-off transition disorders has longer term health implications because of the negative and cumulative effects of these challenges.

For instance:

  • Cows with milk fever had four times more risk of retained placenta and 24 times more incidence of ketosis than cows that did not have milk fever.4
  • The risk of ketosis was elevated in cows that had either a retained placenta, displaced abomasum or case of milk fever.4
  • In addition, subclinical ketosis in the first or second week after calving is associated with increased risk of displaced abomasum, metritis, clinical ketosis, endometritis, prolonged postpartum anovulation, increased severity of mastitis and lower milk production in early lactation.3

Making Sense of the Gray

"This technology is really exciting," says Endres. "Not only does it help dairy managers prioritize their attention on individual cows that require extra attention or interventions, the data generated on a herd basis help producers and their management team track larger health trends so they can adjust management strategies accordingly.

"Individual cows become sentinel cows—the canary in the coal mine that signifies when a practice, treatment protocol or other management decisions needs to be adjusted to improve animal health and well-being," she says. "It is helping farmers do a better job."

1 Reneau J. A Fresh Cow Paradigm Shift. University of Minnesota. Available at: Accessed December 22, 2013.
2 Gressley TF. Managing the Transition Cow: Recent Research and Recommendations. University of Delaware. Available at: Accessed December 27, 2013.
3 LeBlanc S. Monitoring metabolic health of dairy cattle in the transition period. J Repro Dev 2010;56( Suppl):S29-35.
4 Chase LE. Management of the Transition Cow. Cornell University. Available at: Accessed December 22, 2013.

SCR Dairy is the leading pioneer of cow and milking intelligence. Monitoring millions of cows worldwide, its data-driven solutions are trusted by successful dairy farmers to deliver the insights and analytics needed to optimize the productivity of every cow. Contact Shane St. Cyr at

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