Cow health expert shares knowledge with Welsh farmers

Farming Connect - 2012-12-03

Comfort is the key to maintaining the health and production of housed dairy herds, according a leading dairy cow expert.

Although many herds in Wales are run on pasture-based systems there are a signficant number housed in cubicles.

US vet Nigel Cook, who has run a number of studies on the health of dairy cows in housed systems, says there are major benefits to be gained from focussing on comfort in conjunction with nutrition, herd management and breeding.

“We can have housed large herds with cows producing phenomenal volumes of milk that stay healthy,’’ he told farmers at a Farming Connect knowledge transfer event in Denbigh.

As herds have grown larger so too have the problems associated with lameness, mastitis and the health of fresh calvers. If farmers are to succeed in housing cows they have to improve at these performance-limiting factors, Mr Cook suggested.

A factor is bedding. Research suggests that there are an additional 1,000 litres of milk to be gained from using sand as bedding in cubicle stalls.

In Wisconsin, where the majority of herds are housed, two-thirds of dairy farmers use sand. “We have preached sand and it has worked,’’ Mr Cook explained. “If cows are comfortable they will lay down for longer and get the rest they need to get over any lameness problems.

“I am not saying that if you use sand everything will be OK. Farmers need to consider what limits their own production system. It could be genetics, nutrition or herd management.  If they control these three things comfort is the last barrier and if that last barrier is removed you can do a lot of things.’’

Mr Cook said farmers needed to get better at providing for the needs of the cow and this revolved predominately around resting. “Cows shouldn’t be standing in stalls for long periods of time, that is abnormal behaviour. A cow needs a surface that gives her cushioning, traction and support. If we can do that we are going to have a successful facility.’’

His preferred bedding is sand but for farmers in the UK who don’t have the facilities to handle it, he suggests either high welfare thick mattresses or gel mats. “These are the next best thing and will get some good results,’’ said Mr Cook.

Cow lameness, he believed, was a worsening problem but the approach taken by farmers in Wisconsin is working. A study undertaken there showed that around 13% were lame, with severe lameness in 3% of these. This compares to around 30% lameness in other studies around the world.

“The industry does have a problem and it does seem to be linked to higher production, larger herds and cubicle housing,’’ said Mr Cook.

One farming partnership which has adopted Mr Cook’s Dairyland Initiative approach to cow management at housing are Leo and Giles Rowland, who farm at Bachymbyd Fawr, Llanrhaeadr, Denbigh.

They milk a herd of 350 high yielding Holsteins, calving all the year round. They have focused on improving the transition between the dry period and lactation. “If we manage that correctly the rest just happens,’’ said Leo.

The brothers have invested in a building with gel-filled mattresses for housing cows three weeks prior to calving and three weeks post-calving. “We have invested quite significantly in improving the transition period but it has really paid off, we get far fewer health problems,’’ said Leo.

Farming Connect, which is delivered by Menter a Busnes, is funded through the Rural Development Plan 2007-2013 which is financed by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development and the Welsh Government.

Photos for this release:

US vet Nigel Cook with dairy farmer Leo Rowland.