The worldwide dairy industry
There are over 270 million dairy cows worldwide who produce over 600 million tonnes of milk each year. The EU has around 23 million dairy cows producing a whopping 135 million tonnes of milk annually. The USA produces over 87 million tonnes of milk annually; around 15% of the worlds annual milk! India has the largest population of dairy cows in the world with over 43 million dairy cows making up 16.5% of the worlds dairy cow population.
In the UK dairy farming is in decline; in 2010 there were 1.8million dairy cows which shows a dramatic drop from over 3.2 million in 1980. There are many reasons behind this such as soaring inflation costs, plant-based movements and exports to the EU reducing substantially due to Brexit.
Dairy cows are bred specifically to produce large quantities of milk; each having one calf every year and generating milk for 10 months of the year and on average producing milk for 3 years. The global average for milk production is approximately 2,200 litres of milk per cow, however, this is vastly different across countries with the average in the UK being around 7200 litres per cow and as much as 10,000 litres in Saudi Arabia and Isreal.
What breed are dairy cows?
The most common breed of cows used within the dairy industry are Holsteins, originating from the Netherlands approximately 2,000 years ago.
In the USA Holsteins make up nearly 90% of dairy cows and this is similar across the world. They are widely popular for dairy herds as they produce nearly 9 gallons or 40 litres every day and are well known for producing high volumes of milk throughout their life - in some cases over 13,000 litres per lactation.
Another breed of cow which is used for dairy production are Jersey Cows. These are a smaller breed than the more commonly used Holsteins with soft brown hair. Jersey cows originate from the UK (Jersey) and produce some of the richest milk produced by cows - commonly used to produce butter and cheeses.
The Brown Swiss breed of cow are thought to be one the first breeds of cow and are known to be the second most productive breed after Holsteins. Originating from Switzerland they are commonly a beautiful brown colour and are a very docile breed, easy to farm and resilient to many weather conditions.
Alongside these most common breeds there are also a few other breeds used in milk production including The Guernsey cow (producing high-quality ‘golden ’milk), the Ayrshire cow (once known as Dunlops) and the Milking Shorthorn breed.
Causes of lameness in dairy cows
Lameness in cows is defined as any variation/defect which causes abnormalities in the animals gait and can include a variety of leg and foot conditions.
Lameness within a dairy herd is a major issue for dairy farmers worldwide. As well as impacting the animals overall well-being, milk production levels and subsequently the farms economics are negatively effected too.
Around one quarter of all dairy cows are thought to suffer from a degree of lameness. In the UK, the average cost of having a lame dairy cow is thought to be in the region of £180 per occurrence which equates to a cost of £15,000 for the average sized herd in the UK. In Canada and North America this is even higher as herd levels are generally bigger.
Lameness prevention in that case is a key focus of farm management and sustaining milk production within a herd.
In dairy cows the most common cause of lameness are claw lesions which are either non-infectious or infectious diseases of the feet - with digital dermatitis being the most common. These can vary in severity but in more severe cases can lead to the animal being culled.
The general causes of lameness are widely known to be related to poor quality floors in cattle housing and cows standing for long periods of time in dirty or on hard surfaces. Ineffective shoe trimming and poor nutrition can also lead to heightened lameness within a breed.
Detecting lameness in dairy cows
Lameness in cattle can be an expensive cost to a dairy farmer and can be associated to either infectious or non-infectious diseases. Non-infectious diseases, such sole ulcers, are the most commonly reported condition with an estimated cost to a UK farmer of £500+ per case, with white lime disease next on the list estimated to cost in excess of £300 per case. The most common infectious disease, digital dermatitis, is thought to cost around £75 per case however this infection is highly contagious and can possess severe risks to the whole herd.
The quicker the dairy farmer is able to react to any lameness the quicker the animal can recover and begin to produce high-quality milk (and yields) again. Early detection of lameness at all stages of lactation can also lead to better milk yields and reduce the risk of mastitis and further complications within the herd.
Farmers are encouraged to continually monitor their herd and play close attention to the animals mobility levels. Mobility scoring is the simplest and most efficient way to monitor lameness throughout a herd and establishes how many cows are lame at any one time. By knowing this data farmers can act accordingly.
After calving, a dairy cow mounts a quick inflammatory response to remodel their digestive tract to help eliminate any pathogens and to help heal or repair any damaged tissues. Inflammation as a whole can be an early sign of infection so many farmers carefully monitor any inflammatory responses shown by cattle.
In many cases dairy farmers use the 3 step process of spot-lift-look. Once a farmer detects a sign of soreness in their cow they are encouraged to lift the foot whilst in the crush which can be done quickly and causing no pain to the cow. In many cases the cause of the lameness can be easy to spot for well experienced dairy farmers. As experienced within the equine industry, early detection of lameness is key.
Using somatic cell counts as an indicator of the animals health
Developed countries now use somatic cell count readings as a marker to monitor the overall health of the herd. Somatic cell count readings are used to establish the milk quality.
An individual somatic cell count of 100,000 cells/mL or less indicates that the animal is uninfected from infection and milk processors pay a premium for milk with low cell counts; an indication of it’s high quality. If however the cell count rises above 200,000 cells/mL this would determine that the cow is lame or infected.
In the majority of cases it is not cost effective to have cell count tests taken on individual animals without reason to do so. Dairy farmers apply a bulk tank somatic cell count - where all the milk produced by the herd is mixed together and the overall cell count of that yield is then established. If an individual cow has a really high cell count then this can alter the entire yield. This puts significant importance on the farmer being able to establish an individual cows lameness and if they determine the cow may be lame then their milk is often not used and added to the overall yield. If, following treatment, the cow remains with infection and high cell counts then they are likely to be culled.
Environmental infections need to be managed continuously. Farmers need to ensure any infectious diseases are managed within the herd and do so by trying to avoid the infection spreading amongst the herd. Contagious cows are often milked last (if at all) and in most cases are moved to separate barns and kept away from the healthy population.
Treating lameness in dairy cows
Lameness in dairy cows does not treat itself and requires medical intervention.
It is worth noting that lameness is not a single condition and has in fact multiple causes. As such, lameness in cows can be difficult to assess.
Lameness in dairy cows is the third most impactful disease on the farmer behind mastitis and reproductive issues.
The availability of natural and ecologically-minded solutions is of paramount importance to the dairy industry where current options are toxic to users and the environment. There is a dire need to develop alternatives to using antibiotics for treating infectious diseases and to create preventative measures which support the herds wellbeing long term.
Managing the hoof health of the herd is an important ongoing task. Many cattle farmers are encouraged to keep their animals feet closely monitored and regularly trimmed. Foot trimming is carried out by specialists and is critical in keeping the animals feet well balanced and healthy.
Establishing lameness early is key so technologies are now being released to support the farmer, such as technologies which monitor and measure the animals mechanics. Cameras monitor the herd and detect early signs of abnormal movement; often the first sign of lameness.
Advanced magnetic technology provides an ongoing tool to dairy farmers which have shown to significantly reduce lameness and directly impact cell count level sin appositive way. Products such as MOO StreamZ® can be worn 365 days a year and early studies suggest the technology provides the animal with increased wellbeing levels, help to reduce inflammation associated with many conditions and ultimately reduce somatic cell count levels. Worn around two legs these bands are hoping to create significant impact for the dairy industry working alongside some of the largest dairy farmers and organisations in the world.
Whatever the future of dairy farming brings; managing a herds overall wellbeing and reducing lameness is key in achieving high-quality milk yields. With technology and diagnostic tools becoming more advanced farmers are now actively looking to adopt new technologies, therapies and treatments to their herd in the hope that they can reduce lameness levels.