Getting Holsteins to live longer

Genetic progress has increased SA Holstein cows’ milk production by more than 17% to about 9 308â„“ per lactation over the past 10 years. But the longevity issue is preventing farmers from realising the full potential of these “supercows”. Glenneis Erasmus reports.
Issue date: 30 May 2008

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There’s a direct link between the amount of milk produced, cow longevity and farm profitability. “Keeping cows profitable for as long as possible allows farmers to spread rearing, as well as fixed and variable costs over more lactations and increase farm income.”

So says Johannes Loubser, winner of this year’s Philadelphia Herd Competition. He’s co-owner with his four brothers and dairy manager of the Welgegund farm near Durbanville.

The average longevity of Holstein cows in South Africa is between two and 2,5 lactations. Johannes’ objective is to increase longevity to around four lactations at Welgegund. Johannes says he breeds for longevity. “I want strong cows with good female characteristics, so that they’ll be able to carry themselves when they get older.”

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His efforts are paying off as the oldest cow on the farm is now 10 and has produced over 100 000â„“ of milk. He believes he’ll have over 20 such cows in the next five years. “If we want the best from our cows, we must treat them very gently. We have to reduce stress and increase their comfort from when they walk into the milking parlour to when they are being milked,” says Johannes.

Sheds to improve the ladies’ rest
“used to suffer huge losses from January to April due to heat stress. But erecting four cowsheds has helped significantly. Temperatures inside are around 10ºC lower than outside in summer,” says Johannes. “In winter the sheds help to keep the cows warm and out of the rain.” He adds that milk production has increased by 3â„“ per cow per day since the sheds have been introduced.

Unlike other cowsheds in the area, those at don’t have cubicle areas bedded with sand where cows can rest. The sheds are simply divided into two large areas with cow dung used as bedding.

I “don’t like the cubicle idea because it doesn’t provide cows with as much freedom of movement as the open system does. In addition, the cubicles need to be cleaned regularly, while the open system requires very little management,” he says. Each shed houses 400 cows grouped according to lactation and each cow has access to 20m2.
“Cows must have enough space so they don’t need to walk or lie in wet dung.

However, once the dung is dry, it’s an extremely clean product – it was used for flooring in houses in the olden days,” Johannes explains. The sheds aren’t cleaned from October to May, although hay might be supplied during July to August if a wet winter is experienced. Johannes says he uses one-tenth of the straw he used to use when the cows were kept outside.

The dung in the sheds is soft, ensuring that cows spend at least 14 hours a day lying down. Resting is important as it reduces lameness, improves blood circulation in the udder and therefore improves milk synthesis. It also helps reduce acidosis as it intensifies saliva production, which stabilises the pH in the rumen.Resting is taken so seriously at Welgegund that a daily spot-check is executed to count the number of cows that are lying down at a specific time of day.

Healthy hooves for longevity
Quarterly locomotion scoring identifies cows with hoof problems. Scores are based on the shape of the back of the cow while standing and walking. Welgegund cows usually score above the 75% standard goal, with 97% of the animals scoring one. Cows that score below three are sent for hoof inspection and treatment.
“Hoof treatment is imperative for longevity as it helps prevent serious diseases and lameness that could cause huge financial losses if untreated,” says Johannes. It also helps to identify laminitis while it’s still at an early stage, as it’s a disease that can spread like a wildfire once it’s in a herd.

A hoof specialist visits the farm weekly to tend to problem cows. “It’s best to treat the animals while they are dry to prevent shock that could affect calving and milk production,” Johannes explains. Foot baths are given weekly, three times a day just after milking to remove damaging material, destroy disease-causing bacteria and harden the hoof.

High-tech monitoring
Real-time technology at the Welgegund farm monitors milk production, somatic cell counts, the weight of each cow, and how much a cow walks. Changes in any of these could mean a disease is present. Cows walk an average of 100 and 200 steps between milking periods. However, if a cow is ill, this drops significantly and if it’s on heat, it increases to about 500 steps, Johannes explains.

Nutritious feed closely monitored
A nutrition specialist formulates a ration to suit the nutritional needs of his herd. The Penn State separation test is used to measure whether the feed particles are small enough for the cows to use efficiently, while crib inspections are done every morning to monitor the amount of food eaten. The ideal is only 5% feeding rests – less could imply that cows aren’t receiving enough feed, while more could indicate that food is being wasted.

Cow dung is also inspected regularly to determine the digestibility of the feed or whether cows are sorting feed. Johannes explains that heat stress and disease can affect manure appearance, but in most cases, changes are due to diet. Variations in consistency usually indicate that cows are sorting feed, as dung piles in the herd should be consistent within groups receiving the same diet. Manure is also regularly washed through a screen, especially when feed rations are modified or adjusted, to monitor the cattle’s ability to digest new feed. Contact Johannes Loubser on 083 261 9930. |fw