Look. Think. Act. Simple prescription for what ails cows

February 23, 2010 09:24 AM


Adequate bunk space is critical to ensure that all cows can eat as a group.

Dutch veterinarian Joep Driessen gives producers a pretty straightforward formula for correcting common cow management bottlenecks:

  • Look at cows closely to detect problems.
  • Think about what's causing those problems.
  • Act to correct them.

"The cow is the best management adviser. Just look and listen,” he says.

"The answers are dead simple—cows need sufficient amounts of feed, water, light, air, space and rest. If you give them enough of these requirements, they no longer have a reason to be ill.

"On every dairy in the world, a lack of one of these points destroys cow health and welfare as well as farmers' income,” he adds. "Very often, three or four of these points can be easily improved at low cost and will subsequently yield high returns.

"If you provide them, you'll end up with healthy cows. Remember, one sick cow costs as much as 40 healthy cows,” he says.

Driessen heads up CowSignals, a dairy advisory service based in Bergharen, the Netherlands. The company employs nine veterinarians and three ag advisers with experience in 37 countries and 20 languages. Driessen recently spoke at the Minnesota Milk Producers Association annual meeting.

A lot of what Driessen preaches is common sense. But as herds become larger and more reliant on labor that has never worked with cattle, these cow basics must be taught.

Driessen focuses on three areas that are key to cows health: rumen fill, lameness and flesh wounds.

Rumen fill. One of the quickest ways to evaluate rumen fill is to look at the depth of the triangle formed on the cow's left side from the back of the ribs to the hook bone. "If it is a deep hollow, it's not normal and means the animal hasn't eaten for four to six hours,” Driessen says.

First-calf heifers and the lower third of some herds might have inadequate rumen fill. Possible causes are empty bunks, lack of bunk space and overcrowding.

The fix can be as simple as feeding one more time per day or pushing up feed late at night. But if bunk space is limited, you might need to reduce stocking density.

Remember that cows are herd animals and want to eat all at the same time. Separating older cows from first-calf heifers reduces intimidation.

Lameness. "Why are 25% of all cows in Europe and North America lame?” Driessen asks. "This has a lot to do with freestall design, flooring, ventilation, long waiting times at milking and transition period management.”

The first step is to evaluate the number of lame cows—and the severity of that lameness—in the herd. The tougher part is diagnosing the problem. But if there are a large number of cows standing in aisles or perching in freestalls, it's a good indication that stalls are improperly sized, have impediments that make lying down and standing up difficult or have uncomfortable bedding surfaces.

Deep-bedded sand or straw offers the best cushioning and traction for cows. Rubber mats and mattresses, even when they are topped with bedding, usually are not cows' first preference because they are still too firm yet don't provide enough cushion or traction when cows attempt to stand.

As a basic preventive measure, Driessen also recommends routine hoof trimming, preferably at 90 days in milk and again at dryoff.

Flesh wounds. Cows will quickly tell you when equipment and facilities are causing injuries. "Severe wounds vary from farm to farm, from zero to 44% of all cows in the herd,” Driessen says.

Hock injuries and swelling are the most common, indicating abrasions from poorly bedded stalls. But injuries to knees, necks and backbones also indicate poorly placed brisket boards and neck rails.

Driessen recommends closely examining 10 to 20 randomly selected cows in a group. If one or two of those cows have wounds, that suggests 10% to 20% of the herd have similar problems.

Bonus content:

Spanish translation


Get lame; stay lame

Are you missing lame cows?

Cow comfort makeovers

Bedded Packs

Low-cost Solutions


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