One of the most important factors affecting dairy output is the comfort and welfare of your cows. If there’s something wrong with your dairy cow, it’s time to take action. But the best way to have a consistently healthy herd is to know the signs of a healthy cow and prevent any illness and disease. It is relatively easy to identify a healthy cow with practice.

A healthy cow will not have any irregular movements, they will have a shiny and smooth coat, bright and alert eyes, and upright ears. Their dung will be soft and their urine should be clear. If you notice anything wrong with your dairy cow, contact your vet as this could be detrimental to the rest of your herd.

If you want to know more about spotting tendencies of a healthy herd or would like to know more about certain symptoms your cows may be experiencing, let’s examine the signs of good health in dairy cows.

What Signs Can You Look For in a Healthy Cow?

General appearance – Your dairy cow will be alert to its surroundings and stand squarely on four hooves. They generally hold their heads up high to see what’s happening all around.

  • Movement – She will walk with regular steps easily and steadily, with all four feet bearing equal weight. If they are lying down, a healthy animal will be able to stand quickly. Any irregular movement suggests pain in its feet or legs.
  • Eyes – These should be bright and alert. If there’s any discharge at the corners, there may be something wrong.
  • Ears – Ears are upright, pick up sound with movement, and swat flies away with ease.
  • Nose and muzzle – Their nose should be clean of any discharge, and the muzzle should be moist. Healthy cows lick their noses frequently.
  • Mouth – If your cow is dribbling saliva, there is likely something wrong. If they are having trouble chewing or if they chew slowly, be sure to check their oral cavity for any issues.
  • Hair/coat – Healthy cows have a smooth and shiny coat.
  • Breathing – A healthy cow’s breathing is smooth and regular while at rest. Hot weather and exertion will quicken their breathing.
  • Pulse – To check a cows pulse, hold the tail lightly with your thumb and forefinger a short distance below the base. A normal adult rate is between 40 and 80 beats per minute, though it can be somewhat higher in a young calf.
  • Dung/urine – Dung is usually soft, but not watery. If it is the latter (diarrhoea) or hard or difficult to pass (constipation), these are signs that something is not right. Their urine is clear, so if there is any colour to it or they have difficulty urinating, then get them checked.
  • Appetite and rumination – If you notice your cattle’s appetite or rumination patterns are changing, this may be a sign of ill health.
  • Milk – If the udder is swollen or painful to touch, there is something wrong with your cow. Teats get injured easily and this is one of the biggest health problems in dairy cows. A sudden decrease in milk production is likely a health problem, while blood in the milk signifies an udder infection.
  • Body temperature – Just like humans, a high body temperature signifies infection, unless of course there is a reasonable environmental factor at play. In New Zealand North Island, heat stress in cows is a big issue and animal shelters help to regulate their temperature.
  • Behaviour – Healthy cows are pretty calm, so any abnormal behaviour may be a problem. For example, if a cow keeps looking at its flanks or kicks at its belly, there’s likely pain around the stomach.

To learn more about the signs of a healthy cow, here is an in depth study by Australia’s National Science Agency that goes into further detail about how to observe your cows, their actions, signals and risk factors.

How to Manage Animal Health

Keeping an eye on your herd, observing their characteristics, behaviours, and any changes in the aforementioned normal behaviours will be the first signs of problems with your cow’s health. Prevention is always better than intervention and will save you time, money, and resources as well as preserving your cow’s health and productivity.

There are many things you can do to ensure the good health of your cow remains consistent. Here are a few things to consider to keep your herd healthy:

Water Consumption

Unlimited access to fresh drinking water is just as important, if not more so, than having enough food. Cows consume between 3 and 30 gallons of water per day. While this is a pretty broad range, you can calculate effective water consumption by adding 1 gallon of water per 100 pounds of the cow during cold weather, and 2 gallons per 100 pounds during hot weather.

Make sure to empty your water tank at least twice a week and disinfect it once a week. Dirt at the bottom of a water tank may cause irritation or allow bacteria to grow.

Fresh Air

Like all earthbound mammals, cows want maximum fresh air and ventilation. The optimal temperature of a lactating cow is -5 to 18 degrees celsius. At low temperatures, cows require extra energy to keep themselves warm. If the temperature reaches above 25 degrees celsius, cows will feed less and begin to show other signs of heat stress. Keeping your animals sheltered in a barn with good ventilation and tools to regulate temperature keeps your herd happy and healthy, and much more comfortable.

Well Rested

Multiple studies have shown that cows that are more comfortable produce more milk through their productive life. Happy cows like to lie down on a soft and textured surface and their milk production relies on it. When a cow is lying down, their blood circulation to the udder increases by 30% and research shows milk yields increase, so finding the right bedding is key. When choosing your bedding, keep in mind that softer bedding prevents excess tension on the front knee and pelvis and good grip prevents falling and sliding.

If your cows are kept sheltered in a barn, cows are much more comfortable out of the elements with regulated temperatures lying time is maximised which can also increase their milk production. With the help of a composting barn the bedding provides a soft ground and the microbiota of the composting organic material has an added benefit of restricting the growth of pathogenic bacteria that often cause mastitis in cows.

Clean out the bedding of any urine or excretion up to three times a day to avoid illness and infection. Fill or layer the bedding with padding (organic materials such as wood shavings, sawdust or paper) up to twice a week.

Balanced Feed

Dairy cows often eat as much as 45 kilograms of feed a day, made up of a balanced combination of forage, grain, mineral supplements, and protein-rich substances such as soybean meal. Forage is the foundation of a cow’s diet and includes pasture grass, or chopped grass, also known as silage.

By investing in a livestock barn with SmartShelters you can easily monitor your cattle’s feed, making sure each individual cow is getting the balanced nutrients they need. This can even reduce wastage of feed.

Dry forages are pasture (fresh forage) or high-quality alfalfa hay, alfalfa-grass mix hay, grass hay, or straw. Some dairy farmers will feed a mix of both silage and hay, while others might only feed silage or only feed hay, depending on the farm and availability. The other half of the diet is called concentrate.

What Does An Unhealthy Cow Look Like?

If your cattle appear gaunt, it may be that they are not receiving enough intake or perhaps they are not eating and drinking properly. An additional sign of this could be that their abdomens bounce when they walk. Rapid weight loss or change in body condition usually also indicates an underlying illness. Other signs of illness that occur later include laboured breathing, deep coughing, eye and nasal discharge, bloody diarrhoea, or depression.

An unbalanced walk or back curvature may suggest lameness or digestive difficulties. A swollen neck can be due to a low feeder fence or incorrectly adjusted barn equipment. If you’re concerned about udder health, carefully inspect the teats before milking. If they are swollen, painful to the touch, or inflamed, this is usually a sign of mastitis. The condition of the udder can be affected by hygiene problems or inadequate rationing. If chewing is slow and incomplete, their teeth or oral cavity will usually have visible signs of problems. Too little or too much saliva could also be a sign of infection.

A SmartShelters client was experiencing a serious issue with lameness in their cattle and reduced their milking to once a day to minimise walking for the cows. The farm lost $100k production per season by transitioning to this method and was spending $60k a season on lame cow culls, treatment and vets bills.

He invested in a SmartShelters composting barn for $350k and is already seeing great results. He aims to get to 600kg per cow in the first season and then maintain this level of production. He is already eradicating the issue of lameness and stressed that he hadn’t even anticipated other advantages that come with the barn, Such as safer calving, heat stress relief and future compliance that he is already reaping the benefits from.

How Can I Protect My Animal’s Health?

To prevent the transfer of infections between herd members, it’s important to establish protocols such as the quarantining of new cattle and isolation of any affected animals. Infections can spread rapidly between confined animals.

Although it’s difficult to convert the cost of cow welfare, an estimate per sick cow left out in the elements could range around the $200 mark. Read our clients Brian and Paddy’s testimonial about how they were blown away by the increase in herd health with the implementation of our composting barn.

Our research with our clients has proven that investing in SmartShelters can improve herd health through a range of different factors such as the regulation of temperatures and climate, clean and warm bedding, easier monitoring and early detection of cattle issues, controlling and regulating feed intake, safer calving and more.

Recording Herd health

By monitoring and recording data of your herd health, you can identify, diagnose, and manage many issues early on before they become untenable. Monitoring is also important for large herds where simple, small, or subtly noticeable changes can suddenly have significant effects. The information is important for the timely identification of epidemics, identification of animals to cull, effectiveness of the control of sick cows, and to provide information to your vet.

Early Detection

Farmworkers can be trained to be aware of signs of ill health in cattle. They can learn how to identify symptoms of premature lameness, damage of the teats, and of mastitis. The detection of disease can be challenging if it becomes symptomatic later in the disease progression, so small changes in routine and behaviour will likely be the first indication of something being wrong.