CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. — Consumers today want to be assured that the milk they purchase comes from well-cared-for dairy cows. Like taking steps to improve milk quality, adhering to recommended best management practices for animal care can benefit not only your dairy animals but your farm’s overall profitability.
Studies have shown a positive correlation between milk production and healthy, well-cared-for animals. For example, research has shown that herd-level management practices to promote feed access, such as increased bunk space can increase milk yield and lower somatic cell counts (Sova, et al. 2013). A more recent study from 2021 found that when cows were able to ruminate while lying down, they tended to have greater dry matter intake and greater protein and milk fat content. These results indicate that encouraging lying while ruminating has positive benefits for the dairy cow and her production (McWilliams, et al. 2021).
According to the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF), 99% of the U.S. fluid milk supply in 49 states participate in the Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (FARM) Animal Care program. The FARM Animal Care program has evolved to include a comprehensive set of animal care recommendations, and most U.S. dairy farms have been through one or more animal care evaluations. The program’s goal is to encourage continuous improvement regarding animal care practices.
The FARM Animal Care Program covers a range of animal care topics, recommended standards, and observation-based outcomes that must be met.
Dairy producers participating in the FARM program more than likely have a written herd-health plan that includes protocols for the following:
- Pre-Weaned Calf Care
- Non-ambulatory Animals
- Fitness to Transport
These five areas frequently come under consumers’ scrutiny. Below is a condensed checklist for each animal care area with some reminders to help producers evaluate their animal care program on their farm:
Pre-Weaned Calf Care
- Provide the proper quantity and quality of colostrum, milk, or milk replacer. For example, with colostrum, feed 4 – 5 quarts of high-quality colostrum or colostrum replacer (for smaller dairy breeds, give 3-4 quarts) or an amount equivalent to 10% of the calf’s body weight within the first six hours of life. This can be given in one or two feedings (FARM Animal Care V4).
- Provide feed and water by three days of age. Ensure water is offered even in cold weather.
- Disbud calves before eight weeks with pain mitigation as your veterinarian recommends. Research shows that any method of disbudding and dehorning causes pain (FARM Animal Care V4). Work with your veterinarian to develop a disbudding protocol that works for your animals and you and your employees.
- Move calves by walking, lifting, or using properly designed equipment like a clean wheelbarrow. Calves should never be pulled by the tail, ears, limbs, or dragged.
- Family or employees who interact with the animals should undergo initial and routine training on proper stockmanship or animal handling procedures. While written protocols are necessary, following up with family or employees for hands-on training is critical. For example, be sure to train your part-time employee how to move cows safely and calmly to the parlor or train the new hire who will be handling newborn calves.
- Any family or employees working with animals should use the least amount of force to move or control the animal. Loud noises to move animals should be avoided, and workers should not use their tails aggressively to move an animal.
- Continuing education is recommended annually for any family or employee with animal care responsibilities.
- Animal abuse should never be tolerated.
- Ensure you have the proper equipment and trained family/ employees to move the animal. Moving a 1,200-pound down cow can be a difficult task and can take some innovation. Ensure you have the proper equipment, like a sled or large skid loader bucket.
- Don’t use the animal’s tail, limbs, or head as handles. Unless absolutely necessary for a short distance, do not drag cattle across the ground.
- Once moved, provide the animal with timely medical care, shelter, and access to feed and water. Also, provide isolation from ambulatory animals and protection from predators.
Fitness to transport
- Promptly decide to cull an animal while considering its well-being and ability to make the journey.
- Milk lactating cows right before transport, if possible.
- Ensure the proper milk and meat withdrawal times are followed before culling an animal.
- Avoid transporting animals that have a body condition score lower than 2.
- Refer to the FARM Animal Care Fitness to Transport chart for a complete list of considerations.
- Make sure you have established criteria for identifying animals that need to be euthanized.
- Have a properly trained and designated family member or employee perform the euthanasia. If you are away from the farm for an extended period, your written protocol should have a plan for whom to call in the event of an emergency case (such as a veterinarian or an experienced neighbor farmer).
- The euthanasia method must follow the approved methods of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP) and/or the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).
- Be sure to properly dispose of the carcass using the appropriate method according to your local ordinances.
Developing, following, and regularly reviewing animal care protocols in these five areas can help dairy producers identify room for improvement.
Here are some additional tips for staying in compliance with the FARM program:
- Have an up-to-date signed Veterinarian Client Patient Relationship Form. This should be signed annually by you and your veterinarian.
- Develop and update a written herd health plan. This should be done in consultation with your veterinarian and reviewed annually. Be sure to review these with family members and/or employees who work with your herd. There are fillable templates available on the FARM Program website, or you can ask your veterinarian for herd health plan template recommendations.
- Keep up-to-date treatment records. These records can be digital if you use online dairy record-keeping applications or as simple as a notebook with hand-written treatment records.
Having thorough written protocols and implementing best animal care practices can help you improve your overall farm management. At the end of the day, this will not only help you achieve positive improvements in your operation, but it will also help reassure the dairy consumer when they reach for that dairy item at the grocery store.
If you would like more information or have questions, contact Daniela Roland at 717-809-2194 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Farmers Assuring Responsible Management Animal Care Reference Manual Version 4, 2020-2022.
McWilliams, C. J., A. J. Schwanke, and T. J. DeVries. 2021. Is greater milk production associated with dairy cows who have a greater probability of ruminating while lying down? JDS Communications. 3:66–71. https://doi.org/10.3168/jdsc.2021-0159.
Sova, A.D., LeBlanc, S.J., McBride, B.W., DeVries, T.J. 2013. Associations between herd-level feeding management practices, feed sorting, and milk production in freestall dairy farms. J. Dairy Sci. 96:4759-4770.
–Daniela Roland, Penn State Extension