Research That Keeps Dairy Cows Healthy and Happy

For dairy producers, nothing is more important than the health and well-being of their animals. Dairy producers have a lot of knowledge in this area, and are fortunate to be supported by dedicated researchers and their teams who are determined to improve on existing practices. This is no easy task, and some research can take years to make it to the farm…

This was the case for Pierre Lacasse, research scientist at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) in Sherbrooke, Quebec. Early in his career he followed his scientific instincts about the health of dairy cows and devoted years of research to the topic. His discoveries are now making a real difference on Canadian dairy farms. However, at the start of his journey, there was no indication that he would one day set the standard in the country.

Producing milk—an athletic performance!

Producing milk requires a great amount of energy from the dairy cow. The first week after the birth of a calf is very crucial for the cow’s well-being.

“In terms of energy consumption, for a cow going into lactation mode is nothing less than the human equivalent of running a marathon every day! The energy demand is enormous! Within a day or two, she goes from a state where she provides energy for a calf that grows 500 g per day in the womb, to one where she produces 25 to 30 kg of milk per day.”
- Dr. Pierre Lacasse, Research Scientist, Animal Science, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

The cow’s body can adjust to such a demand, but it takes a few weeks. In the meantime, she draws on her reserves to make up the difference between what she can get from her food and what she needs to survive and produce milk. This stress weakens her immunity and can lead to health problems.

An unexpected path

Very early in his studies, Pierre became fascinated by the complex science behind the lactation of cows. Pierre suspected that milk production could be improved by identifying the key elements that promote the development of the udder and those that limit milk production.

Dr. Pierre Lacasse with his team.

In the late 1990s, he was inspired by a series of statistical data on cows withdrawn from long-term milk production.

“In Quebec, of all the dairy heifers raised, only half were still in the herds at the end of their second lactation period. This high withdrawal rate was mainly related to health and reproductive issues. This indicated that our way of raising our animals was poorly suited to modern cows. It set my career on a new path!”
- Dr. Pierre Lacasse, Research Scientist, Animal Science, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

At that point, Pierre had a scientific hunch that something could be done. He wanted to use all his creativity and knowledge of physiology to reduce health problems in cows, such as mastitis (udder infection) or ketosis (a disorder causing loss of appetite and reduced milk production). These diseases are difficult for cows and are costly to the producers who take care of them.

Benefits of partial milking at the very start of lactation

Pierre was determined to find a solution to the metabolic stress (biochemical imbalance of the body in response to a disturbance) experienced by many cows during the first week of lactation. As early as 2006, he started his testing. His hunch? Imitate nature. Reduce the amount of milk demanded from the cow at each milking during the first five days of lactation so that it resembles the needs of a small calf, which suckles often but in small amounts at first.

Years of testing have proven his hunch correct. With the partial milking management he developed for the first days of lactation, the health of the cows improves greatly.

Pierre demonstrated that with partial milkings, only 6% of cows suffer from ketosis, while 47% of cows experience it with conventional milking.

“Our observations clearly indicate that partial milking allows cows to get through this critical period with less metabolic stress and with better immunity.”
- Dr. Pierre Lacasse, Research Scientist, Animal Science, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

Based on these scientific findings, the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the Université de Montréal in Quebec undertook the commercial farm scale trials. A precise method for use during the first five days of lactation has been developed and can be easily applied on the farm. The soundness of Pierre’s research is now being demonstrated on dairy farms across Canada, where dairy producers are adopting his method to improve the health of their herds.

Dry-off: How can we do it better?

To give cows a rest, producers usually stop milking them two months before the next calf is born. This is called the dry-off period. This was another key area of research for Pierre, since it is also critical for the health of cows.

Dr. Pierre Lacasse

He has developed a process that prevents the cow’s brain from sending the signal for milk production to the udders. This decreases milk production from the start of the dry-off period and shortens its duration. The health of the cows is improved, as this greatly reduces the risk of contracting an infection.

And that’s not all! To reduce the risk of infection, Pierre looked for an alternative to antibiotics applied to the udder teats during dry-off. Working with an AAFC research scientist in Saint-Hyacinthe, he developed a natural gel based on chitosan (a compound made from the shells of crustaceans). Injected into the teats, it elicits a mild and temporary immune response that initiates the dry-off process. Once developed, this method could become an alternative to antibiotics during the drying-off process.

According to Pierre, “what matters most is not the recognition for my scientific papers. It’s reaching out to producers on their farms, and responding to the challenges they face with the health of their cows.”

He also surprises himself. “After so many years of research, what amazes me the most is to be recognized for scientific discoveries that succeeded despite going against all that was most popular at various times.”

In the years to come, Pierre will continue to be the great ally of all those who have the health of cows at heart. The results will come. Keep an eye out!


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