New milk ‘fingerprint’ test for measuring cows’ energy balance

The energy balance of dairy cows could soon be measured by simply testing milk samples instead of time-consuming body condition scoring.

Body condition scoring has been used for many years to identify cows that are too thin or fat or suddenly losing or gaining condition and help farmers and vets to take action to help alleviate a number of metabolic and fertility problems.

However, as NMR product manager Vicky Hicks pointed out, condition scoring is time-consuming, requires good cow identification and is subjective.

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Therefore, the challenge is to develop a tool that can give the information gleaned from body condition scores without the time and hassle of scoring cows regularly, she said at the NMR and University of Reading conference, Healthy Cows, Healthy Humans, Healthy Planet.

This is the aim of a Technology Strategy Board project, using spectral data collected from mid-infrared (MIR) testing on individual cow milk samples.

“We are looking at the ‘fingerprint’ of the milk sample and this technique is already used to measure milk constituents. We’re just expanding its use to predicting the energy balance of a cow,” said Ms Hicks.

As participants in the project, along with M&S, scientists at the Scottish Rural University Colleges are looking at the link between predicted energy levels from the MIR spectra to develop a model that can be put to practical use on farm.

“Body condition scores from cows in the M&S herds will be compared with their MIR predicted energy balance,” she added.

“We anticipate that MIR will offer the potential for the energy status of cows to be routinely monitored in an easy, convenient and hassle-free way using a milk sample already collected from the farm. It’s an exciting development and it will be a valuable management tool for dairy producers that we hope will be available later in 2014.”

As part of the project, part funded by the Technology Strategy Board, cows have been condition scored on 13 farms supplying milk to M&S. “Each cows has been condition scored quarterly by one of three trained scorers and the results have been analysed.”

The results from this condition scoring work have been used to help validate the new milk-based energy balance tool.

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