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Livestock Links: Dairy Cow Health and Sustainable Dairy Farming

April 13, 2010

[Source: ILE’s April issue of Livestock Links, written by Noa Roman-Muniz, CSU Dairy Extension, Assistant Professor, Department of Animal Science]

Today the word sustainable is often overused and redefined to argue against or in favor of a variety of production practices. As a veterinarian and dairy specialist, I believe that maintaining a healthy herd and taking a proactive approach to animal health and well being are essential to the sustainability of our dairy industry. In times like these, when producers are trying to survive low milk prices, it is especially important that herd health be a top priority.

Healthy herds can be considered sustainable herds. A sustainable operation will decrease the inputs and will utilize available resources efficiently. Dairies that have animal health as a priority achieve this by increasing the longevity (productive life) of their cows and decreasing veterinary, drug and labor costs associated with the treatment and management of sick cows. Increased animal longevity also means decreased costs associated with replacing those producing animals with new dairy heifers. Healthy dairy cows will also be better producers than cows with acute or chronic illnesses.

Dairy health becomes a priority when the dairy management team makes it a priority. This is common sense, but is overlooked too often. When I visit dairy operations, I always take notice of how much importance management gives to animal health and well being. Does the dairy offer culturally appropriate training to their workers about sick animal identification and management? Do they have written protocols for the treatment of common ailments? Does management hold regular meetings with workers about the prevention and treatment of downer animals?  Progressive dairy producers tend to be proactive and discuss potential health and well being issues before they happen. If discussions have taken place and guidelines are set, issues can be dealt with appropriately and effectively as they arise.

Dairy cow health is very dependent on attention to detail and common sense. It is about basic principles of prevention and appropriate management. Too often we try to find magic cures to a dairy health problem, when prevention should be our focus.  Animals that are well fed, clean and free of unreasonable stress tend to be healthier. And when they are sick, prompt identification and attention with the appropriate medical or surgical treatments will increase the chances of recovery and return to normal function and production levels.

The word sustainable should not be synonym to any production type.  It should neither equal organic nor conventional farming systems.  Sustainability depends on management, not the classification of the dairy operation.  Sustainability will only be achieved through the perfect marriage of common sense and technology.  Let’s prevent disease, increase animal longevity, assure animal well-being and reduce the inputs needed to provide a healthy source of animal protein to our growing population. Healthy cows are not only key to sustainable milk production, but improve profitability (another attribute of sustainable businesses) and improves the well being of all related to the dairy industry.

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