Precision Management

New technologies developed and adapted to give you better information faster to improve milk production

Monitoring dairy cows to detect a metabolic disease like ketosis always poses a challenge during the transition period. While assessing feed intake, taking temperatures and using cowside tests have become more common, these labour-intensive routines yield limited information in some cases.

A better solution could be in the offing. Dairy scientists have recently been researching the potential of a sophisticated handheld tool originally designed for people with diabetes. They are trying to determine whether it can detect subclinical ketosis in cows.

Some diabetics are at higher risk of developing ketoacidosis, a condition with blood chemistry characteristics in common with ketosis in cows. These people use devices commonly known as glucose meters to measure blood ketones. A similar meter is being tested on dairy cows.

The meter for detecting ketosis is just one example of the next wave of industry innovations. Lately, the dairy service industry has been exploring the benefits of advanced technologies not always designed originally for dairy farm use.

These innovations will encompass tools, software and sensor technologies associated with what is known as Precision Dairy Management: a new model of labour-efficient dairy production.

Potential is increasing rapidly

Some well-known technologies, such as robotic milking and automated calf feeding, are already providing labour savings on dairy farms today. The potential to apply practical new technologies to many other aspects of dairy production is increasing rapidly.

Controlled trials and field studies are underway by private companies and universities to research precision technologies to detect heath and welfare events. These include: lameness and transition cow diseases; activity level monitoring to identify breeding events; and in-line milk sensors to analyse milk quality and assess an individual cow's mammary gland health.

Precision Dairy Management also has a significant role to play and much to offer in nutrition and feeding management. Feed continues to make up 50 to 70 per cent of milk production costs, and technology could reduce the "allowance" formulated in rations above the animal's actual nutrient requirements. That would lower your costs.

This technology could help you manage feed inventory, monitor your feeding program, keep track of ruminal conditions like pH and offer advances that allow more accurate individual cow feeding.

Better information

The goal of all this research is to provide you with faster, more cost-effective and more reliable information on each animal's state than conventional labour-intensive monitoring has offered in the past.

Meters to detect subclinical ketosis could do just that. German researchers recently published findings from two studies that showed considerable promise for validating these meters.

Common among adult cows in early lactation, subclinical ketosis is characterized by poor feed intake and depression. This disease is often associated with negative energy balance. It gets to the point the cow's liver cannot cope with mobilizing body fat reserves at the same time it is making glucose to meet milk production needs.

Blood chemistry values of ketotic cows characteristically have high non-esterified fatty acids (NEFA), high ketones-acetone, acetoacetate and -hydroxybutyrate (BHBA) and low glucose. Typical cowside tests currently involve dipsticks, powders or tablets, and involve sampling milk or urine. A colour change then occurs, depending on the sample's ketone concentration.

Blood samples sent to a laboratory to measure BHBA in blood serum or plasma is considered the best test. A BHBA value has been determined as the threshold between cows with or without subclinical ketosis. However, getting results back from the lab takes considerable time.

The German researchers used meters to measure BHBA levels in cows. They achieved better diagnostic performance with the BHBA meter than they did with chemical cowside tests.

These researchers noted further testing would be required to identify more factors that could influence test results. When all those factors have been determined, producers and veterinarians may have a more accurate tool to rapidly and accurately detect subclinical ketosis using only a single drop of a cow's blood.

Some of these technological advances were showcased at The Precision Dairy Management Conference held March 2 to 5, 2010 in Toronto. To learn more and to obtain Proceedings, please visit


M. Iwersen, U. Falkenberg, R. Voigtsberger, D. Forderung and W Heuwieser. 2009. Evaluation of an electronic cowside test to detect subclinical ketosis in dairy cows. J. Dairy Sci. 92:2618-2624.

This article appeared in the September 2009 Ruminations column of the Ontario Milk Producer magazine.

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