How does increased production affect the health of dairy cows?

Joaquin Ventura & Fernando Diaz

The intensification of agriculture and livestock is defined as the increase in production per unit input (labor, agricultural area, time, fertilizer, seed, food, money…). Intensifying production in the dairy sector can be achieved by increasing external inputs such as fossil fuels, chemical fertilizers, pesticides or feed, or by improving the quality of the food produced on the farm itself.

This increases the number of cows milked per hectare of available land, the amount of milk produced per cow or other productive parameters that can be measured with the goal of improving the productivity and profitability of the farm.

In countries such as New Zealand where dairy cows have been mainly fed on grass, production has also intensified in recent years. In the New Zealand case, there has been a significant increase in feed consumption as a complement to the consumption of grass.

The objective of a study conducted by researchers at the University of Lincoln (New Zealand) was to investigate whether there was an association between intensification of production and deterioration of animal health, measured by the amount of feed purchased on a farm to supplement that consumed directly from the pasture and expenditures in health per cow (both preventative and curative treatments).

In estimating the amount of feed consumed by the animals, the classification of DairyNZ (organization that brings together New Zealand dairy producers), divides farms by the amount of feed they buy into five groups as follows:

  1. They do not buy feed
  2. They buy 4 to 14%
  3. They buy 10 to 20%
  4. They buy 20 to 30%
  5. They buy more than 30% of the feed the cows eat

The authors found a clear relationship between the amount of feed purchased by farms (degree of intensification) and health expenditure per animal, as shown in the table below.

 

Degree of intensification Average expenditure on health per cow (NZ$) Difference with group 1
Group 1 69.3
Group 2 72.4 3.14
Group 3 81.1 11.9
Group 4 89.7 19.7
Group 5 102.7 33.5

Increased health expenditure per cow related to the intensification of farm production

The results of this study indicate that the intensification of feed use significantly increases health expenditures per cow. The authors highlight the fact that because intensification appears to be related to livestock health and well-being, intensifying production requires improving herd health management to minimize this increase in spending.

Moreover, they note that investment in animal health includes both disease prevention and treatment. In order to provide a more accurate information on the nature of the relationship between intensification of production and worsening cow health, there needs to be a more detailed breakdown of the economic disbursement related to the health status of the herd. It would thus be necessary to achieve a more precise and exact indicator than the intensified relationship and health in the herd.

Reference

Ma W, Bicknell K, Renwick A. 2020. Production intensification and animal health expenditure on dairy farms in New Zealand. J. Dairy Sci. 103:1598–1607.

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