Treat cows as individuals for better health and yield

In-line milk meters can help dairy producers treat cows as individuals, while bringing benefits to overall herd health and production. Aly Balsom reports

Most dairy herds are made up of cows of varying ages, stages of lactation and health status and that in itself makes herd management a challenge.

Although many management protocols exist to help tackle this issue, there are varying analysis tools out there that could help producers take the approach one step further.

In-line milk monitors allow individual cow milk samples to be taken and analysed for varying parameters at every milking, equipping producers with the information needed to treat individual animals and improve overall herd health and production.

Milk component analysis

According to John Baines, technical director for Fullwood, optional milk component analysers in robotic milking systems can be hugely beneficial in understanding the metabolic status of individual cows.

“Many farmers use official milk recording for fat and protein, but this is only available once a month and does not tell us about the current metabolic status of an animal. In-line monitors allow day-by-day, milking-by milking-analysis – something which is particularly beneficial for early lactation animals.”

By analysing the milk fat-protein ratio it is possible to get an early warning for ketosis and acidosis.

Ketosis occurs when energy demands for high milk production exceed energy intake and results in a negative energy balance. Consequently, this causes an increase in milk fat content and a decrease in milk protein.

“When left unattended, cows can rapidly go off milk production and it is very difficult to get them going again,” explains Mr Baines. “However, if you can take action early, by feeding propylene glycol, you can keep the problem at bay.”

A marked decrease in milk fat can also be an early warning for sub-acute rumen acidosis (SARA). Milk lactose levels can also be analysed as a means of detecting mastitis infection, Mr Baines says. “Lactose has a role as an osmotic balancer for salts, particularly sodium and chloride. In the early stage of mastitis, there is an influx of these ions into the udder, causing a drop in milk lactose.”

Mr Baines says this, along with yields, temperature and milk conductivity – which increases in line with rising ion levels – can be used to give an accurate indication of mastitis.

“Both a change in conductivity and lactose levels occurs before a cow has high somatic cell counts. By detecting infection early, there is a greater chance antibiotic treatment will be successful.”

Milk conductivity and the presence of blood can also be monitored in conventional milking parlours as a pre-warning system for mastitis, but in-depth milk component analysers are only currently available for robotic milking systems in the UK. However, it is only a matter of time before they are introduced for conventional systems, in line with other countries.

Somatic cell counts

Individual cow somatic cell counts can also be monitored as part of the in-line system in robotic parlours and also in a separate system in conventional milking parlours.

Promar senior consultant, Richard Hooson, explains how the stand-alone system CellSense can be retrofitted into any conventional parlour to give individual cow SCC readings after one-and-a-half minutes.

In a similar way to the California Mastitis Test, milk is mixed with a reagent, which breaks down the somatic cells. Viscosity tests are then carried out to establish SCC levels which are displayed in a traffic light system on each sample point.

“The number of units installed can vary according to individual requirement, but can be fitted on every cluster or every second cluster, for example. But reducing the number will reduce individual cow sampling frequency,” he says.

“The system allows cows to be identified before they go clinical to enable prompt treatment and prevent udder damage. It can also help producers check if farm staff have done something about high cell count cows from day to day.”

Cow numbers need to be manually recorded and individual animals marked in the parlour, but the number of cows with each SCC reading is recorded by the system.

“Tail taping high SCC cows acts as a constant reminder to sort high cell count cows out so they are not ignored until they go clinical.”

In-line milk component analysis:

• Yields – milk drop can be an indication of other animal health problems

• Fat and protein ratio – can give an indication of potential ketosis and acidosis problems

• Lactose – a drop in lactose can act as an early indication of mastitis

• Conductivity – increases if mastitis is a problem

• Blood – indication of milk quality and mastitis

Case study: Chris Bargh, Osbaldeston Hall Farm, Blackburn

Chris and Erika Bargh may have only installed in-line milk component monitors into their three robotic milkers three months ago, but they have quickly recognised the huge and varied benefits the system could bring.

“Such technology opens a whole new world of possibilities for the next generation, as well as endless possibilities on the information you can gather. Knowledge is power – if you know what you’re doing you can act on it,” says Mr Bargh.

By gathering and acting on information provided through individual milk sampling, the Barghs are provided with the right information to keep the herd of 160 pedigree Holsteins as healthy as possible – something Mr Bargh believes is fundamental to running a profitable dairy farm.

“Robots allow us to treat cows as individuals. Cows are like a premier football team – every member has different nutritional energy requirements. Using milk sampling takes everything from a nutritional perspective to another level and allows closer management.”

Because cows are fed exactly what they need through the robots and out of parlour feeders, ketosis is not a big issue for Osbaldeston Hall Farm. However, the analysis potential of the in-line system could allow the farm to drill down on the issue even more by looking at fat and protein levels.

“We could change the levels at which ketosis is picked up on the system to flag up when a cow is approaching ketosis 24 hours before we’d see it. This would allow us to target feed gycol to these at-risk cows.”

Because cows are fed to yield 11,000 litres a cow a year, animals are always going to be on the edge of acidosis, so tracking milk components could also be beneficial in reducing risk.

Recording milk butterfat levels also has the potential to help target feeding at the cows that need it the most. “We have talked about including a specific yeast in the ration to increase butterfats, but at a feed rate of 60g/cow, it’s costly.

“However, if we could flag up individual cows with low butterfat levels, we could target these cows, rather than the whole herd, and reduce costs – if we could get that extra litre and butterfat by feeding cows as individuals, it would be fantastic.”

Dairy Event 2011

Visit the milking zone at this year’s Dairy Event and Livestock Show, to be held on 6 and 7 September at the NEC Birmingham, to find out more about milking parlour options.

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