Dairy farmers need to change focus rather than ‘fixing broken cows’

Dairy farmers focus more on the consequences of immune suppression around calving, rather than addressing this leading cause of problematic transition diseases, nationwide survey results have revealed.

A series of surveys commissioned by Elanco Animal Health found that 98% of UK dairy vets and 72% of producers rank mastitis as the leading herd health concern for dairy producers, with almost three quarters of farmers correctly identifying immune suppression as a core cause of the disease.

Despite this awareness, addressing immune suppression is not high on the list of priorities for farmers, with immune suppression barely making the top 10 list of their most important herd health concerns.

Around calving, all cows undergo a dip in immunity, with the function of essential immune cells neutrophils reducing by up to 40%1, leaving herds vulnerable to transition diseases such as mastitis, metritis and retained placenta2,3.

While an overwhelming majority of farmers (94%) recognise the importance of successfully managing the period around calving for herd health, the survey results reveal that that they do not always associate key transition diseases with the correct cause.

For example, while mastitis is directly related to immune suppression, ketosis, milk fever and displaced abomasum are not. However, the latter illnesses were consistently cited among survey respondents as leading consequences of compromised immunity.

Alistair Macrae, vet and lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, thinks a shift in approach is needed:
“Most dairy producers are aware that their cows are more vulnerable around calving but don’t focus on why this is the case. At the moment, we spend far too much time fixing ‘broken cows’ rather than focusing on prevention.

“There is a real opportunity for farmers to address immune suppression as a key cause of their most problematic dairy healthcare issues.”

The discrepancy between awareness of consequences of immune suppression and cause may go some way to explain why more than a third of farmers have not initiated a conversation about the topic with their vet. This is despite farmers being widely aware of the risk of a compromised immune system around the time of calving as well as the fact that there are active steps they can take to manage the problem.

“An important take-away from these survey results is that farmers need to start asking their vet about how they can address immune suppression around calving and take some practical steps,” said Francis Cosgrave, Technical Vet (& Dairy Farmer) at Elanco.

“Having that conversation is the first step towards a more proactive approach to transition cow management which will help to decrease costly diseases post-calving, while supporting their cows’ potential for future production.”

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