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A Vet Asks: Do Healthy Cows Produce More Milk?

May 13, 2016

A Vet Asks: Do Healthy Cows Produce More Milk?

Is rising milk production on today’s modern dairies a good or bad sign for cows? Here’s the perspective from a veterinarian in America’s Dairyland.  John Borzillo has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, and is a partner in Central Wisconsin Ag Services in Alma Center, Wisconsin. Pictured is Dr. Borzillo in a milk parlor.

I am a managing partner in a growing veterinary practice in Clark County Wisconsin, which seeks to bring in a new generation of veterinarians as well as a diverse selection of services to the region’s many dairy farms. I want to offer my perspective on the animal health trends I see up close and personal, just about every day of the year.

Some who are concerned about animal welfare – as are we – contend that farmers are raising genetically altered cattle that are no longer healthy, viable animals.  In fact, this is a problem – but not a recent one. It dates back several decades to a time long before I started my own practice.  In other words, this is an old problem that might have made for a more timely discussion in the 1970s.

There was a time in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s that cattle were bred selectively for their “milk traits” more than any other single trait.  This meant that cows were bred based on the likelihood their female calves would grow into adult cows that would produce more milk than their mothers.  Somewhere in this process mistakes were made, in that many other traits were often ignored, such as those relating to udder health, hoof and leg structure, body size, etc.

To their credit, it did not take dairy farmers long to realize animals bred exclusively for milk production began to lack longevity. Longevity is not something to ignore if your livelihood is tied to the overall health and well-being of animals – as most dairy farmers’ lives are indeed tied to theirs. So over the course of the past 30+ years, farmers and veterinarians have worked together, with geneticists and a host of other experts, to reverse the mistakes of the past and bring back other important cow traits.  The end result is ongoing improvement in dairy breeds, which allows farmers to benefit from cows that make more milk, while having solid feet, sturdy legs, strong immune systems and proportional body size.

To imply that this is an ongoing problem or that the dairy community is somehow intentionally creating unhealthy animals, couldn’t be further from the truth.  What’s also a distortion is the notion that producing lots of milk, and being a healthy milking cow, are mutually exclusive. This assumption is not only blatantly wrong, but also represents circumstances not seen on most farms.  I personally work with farms that collectively house thousands of cows, all producing very large amounts of milk, while maintaining remarkable cow welfare.  On one farm I work with, each cow produces over 10 gallons of milk each day, but the dairy cows have never been healthier – something I would love to take credit for.

But I cannot, and must give credit where it is due. Comprehending how health and high production can exist together requires an understanding of complex farming operations.  Without going into all the details, modern farming is accomplished by a team of professionals, made up of animal nutritionists, herd staff, milkers, genetic analysts and veterinarians.  It’s this team of professionals, coupled with the hard work and spirit of the American farmer, that strives every single day to continually improve how we care for the animals to make safe food, using science, technology and innovation.

The reality of our world is that American farmers have a big job on their hands.  Not only are they outnumbered 99 to 1, they must provide food, fiber, fuel and pharmaceuticals for our ever-growing population.  In order to meet demand, farms must grow.  But with growth in size, farms do not lose the principles of farming that are so often associated with those picturesque red barns and green pastures.

Large farms – yes, even those who some may refer to as “factory farms” – are still family-owned.  Being family-owned means their farming practices are governed by traditions which promote a solid culture of animal care.  So, in essence, large farms couple family tradition with the ability to employ skilled, 24-hour staff, capable of meeting all the needs of milking cows.  From birth to adulthood, dairy cattle receive exceptional nutrition, comfortable housing and individual care.