When is a cow ready for a milking break? And how long should it last? Wageningen researchers have developed an application that helps dairy farmers make these decisions. This will lead to healthier cows, a decrease in the use of medicine and good milk production.
A cow only produces milk after she has borne a calf. After that, she is milked for approximately 300 days and is then ‘dried off’. This means six to eight weeks of rest, during which she is not milked, until she bears her next calf. ‘This ensures that the cow produces milk optimally in the next round’, says researcher Renny van Hoeij of the chair group Adaptation Physiology. The timing and duration of this break also influences the health of the animals. Van Hoeij developed an application that helps dairy farmers decide when to dry off the cow.
Previous research indicates that shortening or even entirely leaving out the milking break leads to an improved energy balance and healthier cows. According to Van Hoeij, the cows then produce a little bit less. ‘This loss is partially compensated by the distribution of the milk production over an increased amount of days, as the cow is milked for a longer period before she bears the calf.’
Not every cow reacts the same way to these shorter breaks, which is why finding the best approach should be done on an individual basis, says Van Hoeij. ‘The app considers various traits of the cow, such as age, how much milk she produces and her health. Based on these, it provides a tailored advice.’ This is not only better for the animals’ health, it also leads to a decrease in the use of antibiotics, as some cows are given antibiotics during their milking break to treat udder infections. Van Hoeij: ‘If the drying off period is left out, fewer antibiotics are needed.’
The pilot is starting this week. According to Van Hoeij, the dairy farmers are enthusiastic. ‘We expected about five farmers, but we already have 15 who want to participate.’ Van Hoeij doesn’t only check whether farmers follow the advice, but she also asks why they do so or not. ‘An idea may seem great on paper, but real life is unruly. We therefore want to know what farmers base their decisions upon.’ She will also be testing the app at the Dairy Campus in Leeuwarden. ‘There, we will also investigate the effects on milk production and health.’
The app is part of the project ‘Droogstand op Maat’ (‘Tailored drying off’) and is funded by the Productschap Zuivel (Dairy Marketing Board) and the Ministry of Economic Affairs. If the app is successful, it might contribute to a sustainable milk production, says Van Hoeij. ‘A healthier cow has a longer lifespan. This means she will produce just as much or even more milk throughout her life.’