Technology can catch health issues early in dairy cows

VANCOUVER — As dairy herds grow larger and the work force shrinks, farmers may have to rely on more technology to keep their cows in good shape.

New sensor systems in barns can alert producers about potential problems before they become obvious.

“That is where our real focus needs to be. How do we prevent these things from starting in the first place? That comes back to nutrition and management,” said Trevor DeVries of the University of Guelph.

More than 10 percent of the Canadian industry has adopted robotic milking in the last five years because farmers liked the precision, better management of the individual cow and reduced labour.

Feed for the cows and calves can be measured more accurately and sensors can indicate whether they are comfortable. Automated systems can monitor behaviour to indicate heat detection and pregnancy.

“We can put those things together to ideally make more timely and informed decisions when it comes to health assessments in cattle and health management and allows us to focus on preventive health at the cow level,” he said at the World Animal Production Conference held July 5-8 in Vancouver.

His forte is animal behaviour.

“We have seen huge growth and opportunity in these technologies that are available to us when it comes to monitoring things like animal behaviour,” he said.

Farmers ask why they should invest in monitors.

“They will tell you they have always looked at the behaviour of their cows and they are going to continue to do that to make assessments of the health status of their cows,” he said.

However, herds are getting larger and it is more difficult to inspect every cow and notice small behavioural changes over time.

“Sometimes our visual methods are just not good enough from a behavioural change or deviation standpoint,” he said.

Conditions like acidosis and ketosis may be not be noticeable right away and may be difficult to diagnose on an individual cow basis because there are few clinical symptoms associated with these problems.

Computerized sensors recognize when cows are eating less, produce less milk or notice changes in milk composition.

Healthy cows are consistent in feeding and rumination times compared to those developing problems. Cows that are getting sick spend more time lying down versus the healthy ones. They are less interested in eating and they may spend less time chewing. Milk yield may drop.

Typically, animal behaviour changes one to four days in advance of other symptoms of illness.

From a practical standpoint, there are commercial systems available to indicate a cow is deviating from her normal self or herd mates.

The challenge is to make sure these systems are sensitive and specific enough.

There can be false positives and producers get frustrated because the system may be connected to a phone with excessive alerts, and when they check there was not much wrong with the cow.

“At the same time, we can end up with the other problem where they are not sensitive enough to pick up slow disorders where there are subtle changes over time and you could end up with false negatives,” he said.

More research is needed to test the monitors.

“We know precision monitoring is becoming a larger part of the dairy industry, specifically in looking at individual cows. We have a lot of exciting technology out there,” he said.

The technology should improve the lives of the cows and contribute to profitability at the commercial level.

Every farmer will have a different threshold of acceptance. Some want to deal with those that are actually sick while others may want to pick it up sooner.

“We need to keep advancing science and developing models that are going to get the best of all worlds for those farmers,” he said.

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