Cow behavior changes due to health status

Changes in dairy cow behavior shown to be promising indicators of imminent change in health status, such as development of mastitis.

When a cow develops mastitis, her behavior changes and the quality of its milk deteriorates. The stockperson can detect the signs of inflammation in the milk when the cow is milked, but is it possible to recognize the signs of this diseases in other ways and even earlier?

A dairy cow becomes restless four hours after it contracts bacterial mastitis. Simultaneously, the other symptoms of a steadily progressing inflammation such as increased body temperature and swelling of the udder become evident. However, an attentive stockperson may be able to detect the signs of an incipient inflammation in milk two hours before this, according to the doctoral dissertation of Jutta Kauppi, head of animal production research at MTT Agrifood Research Finland.

"The study showed that it is in the milk that the first symptoms of a disease can be detected, while changes in a cow's behavior acted as an indicator for a change in the cow's health," Kauppi said, summing up the results of her study.

However, it is difficult to detect behavior changes and alterations in milk quality early enough. At a conventional milking stall, mastitis is often detected as late as during a milking session, and when using a robotic milking system, in the worst-case scenario, when a cow has failed to enter the robotic system for milking or when it has several failed milking attempts in its history.

Kauppi's doctoral dissertation sought to identify critical points in cow behavior pointing to deterioration in the cow's health.

"Changes in cow behavior, including restlessness, proved promising indicators for an incipient change in health status. To our surprise, changes in milk composition were identifiable before such symptoms were evident, whereas an infrared camera was able to detect inflammatory alterations in the udder four hours after the inflammation had set in," Kauppi said.

The study also investigated alterations in cow behavior in relation to successful completion of the robotic milking procedure, as well as in dairy management practices and changes in the milking method.

Research on animal welfare and on welfare technologies will increasingly target at early detection of signals that predict a health issue of an animal, Kauppi explained. This will enable the launch of preventive measures at an earlier stage than before, affecting the process of a cow contracting a disease and shortening the recovery time.

"Mastitis is extremely harmful for both the farmer and the cow. When an inflammation has gained a footing, the cow is seriously ill. The milk extracted from the cow is also unsuitable for the food chain, causing substantial loss due to treatment with antibiotics because it goes literally down the drain. With regard to the cow's well-being and the financial impact caused by the disease, warning signals should be intercepted as early and comprehensively as possible," Kauppi concluded.

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