Lameness, fertility, cow comfort and mastitis are all things recognised within the industry as areas needing addressing, particularly following recent media reports about dairy cow welfare in the UK.
But, measuring the impact of the environment on cow health, welfare and production, is not only time consuming, it is also subjective and hard to do.
However, for Staffordshire dairy farmer James Pickford, involvement in a project with McDonald’s and Genus ABS using CowSigns, a software package developed by ABS looking at cow welfare objectively, has proved highly beneficial.
“We got involved in the trial because we are always looking at ways to maximise cow welfare and production,” says Mr Pickford, who milks 350 cows at Spot Grange Farm, Stone, Staffordshire.
“Having a fresh pair of eyes on the farm and having data put in front of you about the welfare of your cows allows you to see what the actual situation is on your farm, instead of just what you see everyday.”
Every month for half a day a student from Harper Adams visited the 222ha (550-acre) farm and used the CowSigns software on a portable handheld device to observe cows and their response to the environment.
Parameters measured included cow condition, turnaround time (time taken for cows to get out of the shed, milked and back in the shed), cow comfort, teat end condition, locomotion and cow cleanliness.
“It didn’t affect our daily routine in anyway as they just got on and recorded the different parameters, and then two days later we would get a report of the results which we could then compare with previous months.”
The most useful parameter measured was locomotion, according to Mr Pickford.
“Although we don’t have a major problem with lameness, CowSigns did highlight 15% of cows at score three or above during two audit visits. Our intention is to have less than 10% of the herd at score three or above and to do this we are looking at increasing the frequency of foot bathing and also the accuracy of when feet are trimmed targeting more late lactation cows,” he says.
And locomotion is crucial to the cow’s performance, explains Genus UK technical services director John Cook.
“Fertility, mastitis and lameness don’t occur in isolation with one another, which is why using a program like CowSigns is useful because it can help troubleshoot problem areas.
“About 90% of reproductive results come through proper management and nutrition. And with locomotion particularly, herds consistently with 20% or more cows at locomotion score three or above usually fail to achieve pregnancy rates above 16%,” he says.
And it’s the raising awareness of particular issues that Mr Pickford found so useful.
“It’s like Big Brother is watching you as every month you can see any changes. It has made us more aware and that has motivated us to think in general how we can improve things.”
For example, although the results showed teat end condition score was good throughout, when liners were changed they improved even more. “Knowing information like this just keeps you on your toes as it reinforces the importance of changing the liners every three to four months.”
Likewise, another area that could potentially have serious effects on cow production is cow condition. Although cow body condition scores stayed consistently good throughout, with dry cows only sustaining a 0.5 point loss of condition during early lactation, which is expected, any loss above this threshold could affect heat expression, says Mr Cook.
“When cows aren’t in the right condition, heat expression and the capability to conceive fall dramatically. Often poor fertility is blamed on genetics, but in most cases the genetics are fine. When the environment isn’t right a cow can not reach its full genetic potential.”
Cow comfort, turn times and cleanliness all scored consistently well, which isn’t surprising when improvements in welfare is something Mr Pickford has been trying to achieve for the past 20 years.
All cubicles contain water beds and the passageways in between are suspended slatted floors, in order to keep the cows clean.
“Our objective is to consistently breed cows that can produce 50t in five lactations, with as few problems as possible. Easy managing cows and a balanced approach is the ideal,” says Mr Pickford.
And by using a tool like CowSigns, he believes the ideal is possible when results are taken on board. “It’s important to look at what the data is telling you and act upon it. When you do this, I also believe financial savings could be made.
“Our main daily targets are calving interval and culling rates, but because lameness and cow condition can all impact on fertility then any figures that highlight potential problems are good.”
Although CowSigns has only been trialled on four farms in the UK, it potentially could have wider impact in convincing the consumer of the standard of cow welfare in the UK.
And whereas most audits focus on the environment and less on animal-based assessments, CowSigns is different as it enables cow’s individual behaviours (outcome measures) to be measured, explains Joy Clachan, McDonald’s agriculture assurance consultant.
“We are trying to explore how we can use outcome measures at farm level and how we can predict cow and calf welfare. The good thing about CowSigns is it focuses the attention of farmers on good welfare rather than telling them how to do something and assists them in making management decisions to improve the welfare of individual animals – something that’s important to our customers,” she says.
Mr Pickford also believes showing consumers the welfare standards on UK dairy farms is vital and believes if more farmers started using tools like CowSigns benchmarking could also help improve welfare.
“All farms have got a responsibility to communicate to the consumer and because CowSigns consolidates all the information it could be a useful tool to do this. If more farmers used it then benchmarking would be possible and would highlight even more areas for improvement,” he says.