Dairy cows last longer when farmers listen

CowSignals veterinarian Joep Driessen

The average Canadian dairy cow milks for about 2.8 lactations. That’s better than the global average of 2.5, but this country’s cows could last longer and produce more if dairy farmers did a better job of listening to their cows, says CowSignals founder Joep Driessen.

A veterinarian who co-founded the CowSignals business in The Netherlands 25 years ago, Driessen says when he started practicing fresh out of college he quickly realized how chronic lameness, preventable mastitis and other metabolic diseases were impacting cows’ lives.

CowSignals has grown from that realization. Today, the company works with dairy producers in 70 countries to understand animal health and welfare, recognize cattle needs and help famers better manage dairy operations based on what their cows are telling them.

After his presentation¬†at the Canadian Dairy XPO last month at Stratford, Ont., Driessen sat down with RealAgriculture’s Bernard Tobin and shared thoughts on how Canadian dairy farmers could improve cow longevity, productivity and profitability.

Driessen notes that the best farmers in the world reach an average of five lactations (the very best reach six lactations), cows produce 60,000 litres in their lifetime, there’s little lameness, and the farms average only five treated cases of mastitis per 100 cows per year. “We’re throwing away a mountain of milk by culling cows after three lactations because they could easily make six lactations,” he says. (Story continues after the interview.)

How can farmers move cows to such lofty lactation levels? For Driessen, the road to longer-living cows starts with limiting the time they spend standing, which reduces lameness and wounds. “The biggest problem for lameness is actually the standing on concrete and standing in the slurry,” he says. “And the third one is stress. That’s why we developed stress-free stockmanship training because most farmers don’t really know how to move cows without stress.”

Based on his experience, Driessen says: “two out of ten farmers understand cow signals really well, but eight out of 10 don’t see half the signals.”

In the interview, Driessen notes the huge impact that barn design can have on cow health and longevity. In well-designed barns, cows will rest for up to 14 hours, but in poorly constructed facilities cows experience a higher level of stress and may rest for only nine hours daily. That leads to a lot of hidden costs.

That five hours of rest costs the cow five litres of production. “Longevity is also hidden because lameness is ruining the cow. Because of lameness she gets wounds, because of wounds she gets sick, and because she gets sick, she gets culled.”

Click here for more Canadian Dairy XPO coverage.

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