Dairy Cattle Health Expert Offers Views on Industry Status, Future

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Source: Texas Tech Today, George Watson

June is National Dairy Month, and Texas Tech University is one of the leading research institutions in the country when it comes to production animals. Experts in both the Texas Tech School of Veterinary Medicine in Amarillo and the College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources possess extensive expertise in animal biology and welfare, including dairy cattle.

Pedro Melendez, an associate professor in the School of Veterinary Medicine, is an expert in dairy production medicine with a special emphasis on nutritional management and metabolic diseases in dairy cattle. His research involves the management of transition dairy cows, epidemiology of disorders that can occur just prior to and after calving, and feeding practices of dairy cattle.

Having joined the School of Veterinary Medicine in February, Melendez will play a key role in educating the next generation of veterinarians as the School of Veterinary Medicine welcomes its first class in the fall.

What is the overall status of the dairy industry, both in Texas and across the U.S.?

The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) January Milk Production Report shows an increase in U.S. milk production. Milk production in the 24 major states during January totaled 18.3 billion pounds, up 1.8% from January 2020. Production per cow in the 24 major states averaged 2,049 pounds for January, 15 pounds above January 2020.

Since 2003, the U.S. has lost more than half of its licensed dairy operations, now just shy of 32,000. However, the number of milk cows on farms in the 24 major states was 8.93 million head, 92,000 head more than January 2020, and 6,000 head more than December 2020.

The rising price of corn and soybean meal prices that began in late 2020 are likely to carry through 2021. Those higher feed prices will be particularly tough for milk producers as milk prices are trending lower. While the total milk cow inventory at the end of 2020 was the highest since 1995, herd expansion is likely to stop this year, and the cow inventory could potentially decline.

One thing to keep in mind when looking at milk production is the ever-increasing productivity of the milking cows. Milk produced per cow in the U.S. averaged 23,777 pounds for 2020, 382 pounds above 2019 (23,395), marking a strong year-over-year gain. Unlike the fluctuating overall number of cows, milk production per cow has steadily increased approximately 11.5% from 2011. In 2021, the USDA predicts daily output per cow will increase nearly 1.7%, which would be the highest rate of growth since 2014.

Texas recently edged out New York in milk production to become the fourth-largest milk-producing state in the nation. But a tiered pricing program may reduce production and send Texas back to fifth place. Texas dairy cattle herds increased from 580,000 head to 613,000 head. Milk production per cow also increased from 2,085 pounds per cow to 2,120 pounds.

What is the growth rate of the dairy industry overall?

The dairy industry has been growing at a rate of 2% per year, but this year is uncertain and perhaps the rate will decrease.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the dairy industry?

U.S. dairy farmers enter 2021 still in a state of flux following the disruptions caused by COVID-19 throughout 2020 and uncertainty on how new food-assistance programs may impact milk and dairy commodity prices.

From a biological/health standpoint, what are the major issues concerning the dairy industry at the moment?

The focus of the dairy industry is to produce high-quality milk, and consequently udder health is always a concern. Mastitis is the costliest disease for the dairy industry, so efforts to reduce the incidence of mastitis and somatic cell count is a must. At the same time, with this approach, the use of antibiotics will be reduced, assisting in the decline of antimicrobial residues and antibiotic resistance.

In addition, strategies to improve nutritional management to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide and methane) have always been a concern of the dairy industry. Producers have been extremely focused on improving pasture quality to increase animal productivity, which can reduce the amount of methane emitted per unit of animal product. Also, increased productivity in livestock can be accomplished through improved breeding practices.

How is science improving the dairy cattle industry?

Science is the foundation of what the dairy industry is today. Universities and other research institutions have been the key in conducting high-quality research and transferring information to the entire society.

In my opinion, Texas Tech has a strong group of researchers in dairy cattle production, and it is my conviction to strengthen that program with our new School of Veterinary Medicine. Our research program will focus on enhancing nutritional and feeding management to improve the health status of the herd; consequently, cows will be more productive with better fertility.

What are the biggest challenges for dairies in keeping cows healthy and productive?

The biggest challenges are facilities and technologies to reduce the negative impact of heat stress during the summer. Facilities are expensive and hard to maintain. If cows have a good environment, with high cow-comfort standards, an adequate nutrition program will be reflected in a good health status of the cows. Consequently they will become less sick, produce more milk and have improved fertility.

In addition, human resources are always a concern. Lack of labor for the dairy industry is a reality throughout the world. Trained personnel are very important to manage the animals and the entire herd properly. Our dairy group at the School of Veterinary Medicine will develop a strong extension program to support the training of dairy workers and a continuing education program to sustain the knowledge of colleagues, especially the new generations.

How is technology, both biological and mechanical, helping boost the industry?

It is helping a lot. Robotic milking equipment is increasing in popularity, especially when labor and human resources are scarce. Additionally, electronic systems detecting any health problems early in the course of the disease are very valuable. For example, milking equipment with daily milk weight allow us to identify a cow producing less milk compared to the previous day. This is typically indicative of a cow that is becoming sick. The same occurs with rumination and activity detection systems. They let us know pretty early if the cow is experiencing any health problems and help in detecting heat for breeding purposes.

In terms of biological technology, the use of prebiotics, probiotics, rumen protected vitamins and amino acids, chelated minerals, bypass fats, boluses of slow-release products, buffers and any other type of additives are becoming more popular and accessible for the dairy industry.

Advanced computer record systems also help producers improve data management which, in the end, will help in the decision-making process.

What are the issues coming up in the immediate future that dairy producers will be dealing with most?

Producers will face several challenges, such as sufficient water for crop irrigation and cow consumption. They must be more efficient with the use of water. They also will face the pressure from society about animal welfare and greenhouse emissions, but the dairy industry is working hard on these issues to avoid any misinterpretation.

Farms are decreasing in number, but herd size is increasing. Producers must be prepared to manage the dairy as a business and as a large enterprise.

From a veterinary standpoint, what will be the focus for researchers and veterinarians to care for and improve dairy cattle health? Prevention. This is the key word. We must be focused on handling the cattle to prevent diseases. We must implement the right nutrition to prevent metabolic diseases and maintain proper immunity. We must carry out vaccination protocols to prevent infectious diseases. We must control the environment and conduct proper milking procedures to prevent mastitis. We must provide cow comfort and avoid heat stress to improve fertility and avoid diseases. We must select bulls for lower somatic cell counts, lower lameness and better fertility. We must conduct a health monitoring program in postpartum cows to detect early diseases and treat them accordingly. We must perform a good colostrum management and feed calves properly to prevent scours and pneumonia in baby calves. And much, much more.

Anything else you would like to mention?

The new generation of veterinarians must focus on the concept of “dairy production medicine.” This term engulfs several areas of veterinary medicine such as internal medicine and clinics, nutrition, reproduction, cow comfort, pathology, epidemiology and economics. The objective of any production medicine program must be to sustain animal health and production at the most efficient level that provides maximum economic returns, while considering animal welfare, environmental concerns, prevention of zoonoses and avoidance of residues in animal products.