International dairy consultant Maaike Leistra developed and trained online groups of maximum 15 participants from October 2021 until August 2022 for the Dutch Dairy Training Centre. The trainings were attended by teachers, trainers, advisors and leaders who are responsible for practical training in their home countries. The overall aim was to define the most important factors in farm management and to have insightful knowledge on how to influence these factors.
The participants included teachers and farm managers from the Rift Valley Institute of Science and Technology (RVIST) and an advisor from Agriterra from Kenya, advisors and a veterinarian from Nestlé Indonesia and private trainers from Uganda and Malesia. The connection between the participants was their passion for cows, the desire to improve the technical results by professionalizing dairy farming in (sub)tropical areas to meet the increasing demands for good quality milk in their own countries. To do so, the participants were intensively trained in small groups supporting interaction between them. Topics included feeding management as well as management of young stock, milking, housing, breeding, reproduction, general health, udder health, hoof health management and dairy farm economics. In addition to the personal online training, participants carried out practical assignments on dairy farms. Taking pictures and videos were an important part of the tasks, generating lots of interaction.
In this first part, udder health in general and nutrition as a risk factor are touched upon.
Udder health management
The consequence of keeping cows is that all activities should be planned well in a 24/7 routine. Good management means that all farm workers are aware of the importance of their individual jobs and that the dairy farm manager provides enough background on the total process.
Mastitis is an inflammatory reaction of the udder tissue due to physical trauma or infections by microorganism. It is one of the main reasons for involuntary culling of cows on the dairy farm. The welfare of the animal is harmed, milk production drops and milk quality deteriorates as well.
The lack of recording of individual cow data such as milk production and milk solids, fertility, young stock development and health status is an issue worldwide. This makes it difficult to make well-balanced decisions. Start with setting up a simple Excel-list or buying a cow management system is a useful tool in that respect.
To achieve good udder health on dairy farms, cows should be in good condition and should have a fast-reacting immune system. By knowing that mastitis causes major economic loss, the participants of the courses needed to learn what to look for. They learned the difference between subclinical and clinical mastitis based on the absence or presence of symptoms. To manage mastitis in the herd, participants learned that cow-adapted bacteria can typically be found in the mammary gland and on the body of the cows and that the milking process is the main transmission risk factor. So-called environmental bacteria are present for example in manure, soil and water. Therefore, housing and climate substantially influence the risk of mastitis caused by the latter bacteria. Bacteriological culture of milk samples helps to determine the causative agent.
When mastitis is an issue on the farm, especially nutrition, cow resistance and the milking process should be looked at.
The purpose of optimal feeding is to get strong, durable cows with a higher lifetime milk production. Whether these goals are achieved depends on factors such as strong early growth of the calf, excellent health, optimal rumen development, insemination at the right time and trouble-free calving. Feeding is one of the most important topics in that respect as rumen health plays an important role in the total health status of the cow. Metabolic disorders, impeding the cows’ immune system, reflect managerial problems and should be reduced or solved by managing the transition cows well.
Knowledge about the nutritional value of the feed, fodder and silage production and ration calculation lacked on most dairy farms visited by the course participants. The technology farm from RVIST in Kenya works with ration calculation based on dry matter percentage and has a relatively large number of resources and knowledge available to produce roughage and silages for dry periods. This approach was, however, not feasible for most other farms where cows have to gather their feed between the palm oil plantations, receive concentrate and soybean waste during milking and are given chopped Napier (also called Elephant grass) or maize without corn cobs.
Besides, the farms have to rely on what is available at local markets and it is not unlikely that producers bring home a completely different quality or roughage or concentrate then paid for.
Course participants gained practical insights in the digestion of the energy and proteins by estimating the rumen fill, generating information about the day-to-day feed intake, and by assessing the manure content, colour and consistency. Independent of the lactation period, most fresh manure samples of the visited farms were very thick and stiff, not spreading much. Such manure condition is not acceptable for lactating cows, yet for dry cows and heifers it is ideal.
Judging the body condition of the cow is also important as it gives an idea of the energy consumption over a longer period and the health condition during gestation and lactation. In general, body condition scoring was absent on the different farms visited by the participants.
To have healthy and productive cows, they need access to a sufficient amount of clean and fresh drinking water. Water is officially not classified as a nutrient but it is the cheapest component of the ration. Water management in relation to mastitis is often overlooked. That’s strange when you consider how much cows drink.
Water can contain bacteria, fungi and viruses. Those typically do not end up in the cows’ udders but can have an indirect negative effect on the cows’ resistance. In case of health problems, it has to be made sure that one can exclude the drinking water as a risk factor. The course participants learned to assess water quality by scooping water 5-7 inches below the surface from the water source into a jar. After shaking, the jar needs to rest for twenty minutes in front of a white background after which odour, colour, brightness, presence or absence of sediment and iron are assessed in comparison with tap water or bottled water.
By applying this test on the farms visited by the participants, we concluded that about half of the water supplies were below standard, regardless of accessibility, palatability nor bacteriological examination.
Text and illustrations: Maaike Leistra