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Keys to a Successful Fresh Cow Monitoring Program

Jim Salfer

The performance of fresh cows is important to the success of every dairy farm. Ideally, the cow freshens with no metabolic problems, delivers a live healthy calf, and rapidly increases feed intake with a concurrent increase in milk production. She never gets mastitis, never gets lame, and breeds back rapidly. She does this for several lactations. Unfortunately, not all cows are able to have this ideal scenario while in the milking herd. Using on-farm computers and DHIA records, today's best managers are setting up fresh cow monitoring programs to make sure that their fresh cow performance stays on track.

What are the keys to a successful monitoring program? First, select a few key performance indicators to monitor. Second, pick indicators that measure change quickly. Calving interval is a poor monitor for reproduction because of the tremendous lag. Finally, select monitors that you can and will do something about.

Here are some monitors that I would suggest:

  1. First test day 305ME - For most dairy producers, this is the easiest measure of early lactation milk production. Each month, look at the first 305ME of the cows that have freshened since the last test. Or, look at average milk production of the fresh pen every week. Either of these methods is better than monitoring peak milk production because it can be measured much earlier in lactation. Are they up or down compared to last month? If they are down, reasons should be investigated. It also allows comparisons of different ages of cows.
  2. Pre-fresh pen dry matter intake - This is very difficult to measure accurately because cow numbers and days before calving change on a daily basis. However, if you want an excellent early predictor of impeding fresh cow health, this is it. To make this meaningful, also track the number of cows in the pen and days carried. University of Illinois research shows that cows with lower dry matter intakes before calving are much more likely to have diseases and consequently lower milk production after calving.
  3. First test day percent butterfat - Higher than normal butterfat tests are an indication that cows are losing weight rapidly. These cows most likely have clinical or subclinical ketosis. Look at the percentage of cows in early lactation with over a 5% butterfat test. Also, look for cows with extremely low butterfat tests. These may be thin cows or cows that have acidosis.
  4. Fresh cow disease incidence - Fresh cow diseases are costly (Table 1). When recording diseases, make sure you are consistent in recording all cases by developing a standard definition of the disease, particularly diseases like ketosis and metritis. If you don't, your incidences may be skewed. For example, a farm goes several months without a clinical case of ketosis. Then the farm starts urine testing all cows and, as a consequence, begins to identify and record more cases of ketosis. The question becomes, was there a real increase in ketosis in the herd or was the increase the result of more intense testing for ketosis?

    Minnesota DHI has a system that records disease incidences. Even if you do not have an on-farm computer program, your field representative can enter the data into DHIA. If entered, your consultants can then have access to the data or you can have your field representative print out the data.
  5. First test-day linear somatic cell count - Look at the first linear SCC score after calving. Compare heifers to cows. Also look for seasonal trends in the data.
  6. Early lactation cull rate - High early lactation cull rate is really a proxy for a poor transition program. A summary of Minnesota DHI records show that 8.6% of all cows that calve are culled before they reach 60 days in milk. The goal should be to keep this number as low as possible. Some herds are able to stay near 5%.

For most of our smaller dairy herds, checking this data monthly is sufficient to look for trends. If you have a larger herd, it might be beneficial to summarize data on a weekly or even a daily basis. You could set up a spreadsheet and fax or email the results to your consultants, which will help them serve you better.

The important point is not just in developing a good monitoring program-but also in putting this information to use. Set goals and develop protocols to minimize the risk of not meeting performance standards. By developing goals, protocols, and a specific monitoring program for fresh cows, you will improve the consistency of your herd's performance and health.

Published in Dairy Star November 25, 2006

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