Scientific advances in organic dairy farming: Switchgrass as a promising sustainable alternative bedding for cows

A research project financed in part by Dairy Farmers of Canada and its partners under the Organic Science Cluster investigated sustainable alternative sources of bedding for dairy cows. The research team led by Dr. Renée Bergeron (University of Guelph), and collaborators the University of Guelph (Dr. Trevor De Vries), Université Laval (Dr. Doris Pellerin, Dr. Anne Vanasse, Anick Raby) and McGill University (Dr. Elsa Vasseur, Dr. Philippe Séguin, Tania Wolfe) found that switchgrass is a promising alternative to wheat straw as bedding material for dairy cows. They discovered that cows preferred switchgrass over the straw and there were no negative effects on cow comfort, cleanliness and teat end contamination. Switchgrass may also be a more economically advantageous choice for some dairy farmers.

In their study, they assessed cow preference, lying behavior, stall and cow cleanliness and potential bacterial contamination of teat ends. They also analyzed the economic impact of the use of Switchgrass and the best harvesting practices for performance and quality as a bedding.

 UnknownSwitchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.) is a high-yielding, long-term perennial grass grown on marginal land (Sanderson et al., 2006). It is well adapted for growth under temperate climate, is disease and pest resistant, requires low fertilizer applications and is relatively inexpensive to grow and harvest (Frigon et al. 2012).

In a first experiment, nine cows were housed individually in pens with three stalls with different lying surfaces. They were submitted to a preference test for three types of bedding: deep-bedded chopped switchgrass (SG), “switchgrass-lime” mattress (mixture of chopped switchgrass, water and carbonic magnesium lime – farms using organic bedding commonly add lime to reduce bacterial growth), and wheat straw on a rubber mat (control). The cows had been previously exposed to stalls with sawdust covered mattresses. Lying times were recorded and the cows filmed.

pastedImageIn a second experiment, 24 cows in a free-stall housing were offered the same three bedding treatments. Researchers tested the effects of the three types of bedding on lying behavior, cow cleanliness and teat end bacterial contamination. Stall usage was recorded and samples were taken of teat ends and tested for bacteria (coliforms, Klebsiella spp., and Streptococcus spp.).

The researchers found that the cows preferred the switchgrass bedding compared to the other two bedding types when given equal access and choice. The results also showed that the switchgrass and switchgrass-lime deep bedded options were equivalent in terms of lying behavior and cow cleanliness, but the higher moisture content and teat end coliform counts on the switchgrass-lime surface make it a less favorable option. A longer term study would be required to confirm the latter finding.

When wheat-straw and switchgrass were compared for lying time, cleanliness, injury, SCC and teat end bacteria, they were equivalent in terms of comfort and cleanliness.

Harvest and use of switchgrass

The research team also investigated the economic impact of using switchgrass as an alternative bedding and identified harvesting practices to optimize its performance and conservation.

Switchgrass was grown, harvested and dried on two sites in Quebec – at Université Laval and McGill University. The field experiments showed that yields are much higher when switchgrass is harvested in the fall compared to the spring. However, the spring harvest resulted in lower moisture content. Harvesting before or after the first frost in the fall does not seem to affect winter survival or regrowth in the spring and drying efficiency is higher when switchgrass is harvested before frost, compared to after the fall frost. However, the final moisture content of switchgrass remains higher before frost than after frost.

To assess the economic impact of using switchgrass as bedding, ten Quebec dairy farms in five regions of the province were surveyed. For most, it was an economically advantageous choice. Farmers reported that yields and persistence are advantages and other benefits cited included smaller storage space required.

Take away messages:

  • Switchgrass is a promising alternative to wheat straw as bedding material for dairy cows, both as a deep-litter option or used on top of a mattress or mat.

  • There were no negative effects on cow comfort, cow cleanliness or teat end contamination, and switchgrass had better absorbency than straw.

  • Switchgrass may be an economically advantageous choice for bedding on dairy farms.

    For a summary of the dairy-related organic science cluster projects, visit DairyResearch.ca.

 

Genetics: Does Filtering Really Help Achieve Your Breeding Goals?

The following is an extract from an extension article published by Brian Van Doormaal and Lynsay Beavers of the Canadian Dairy Network.

Some producers have adopted the strategy of applying minimum values on one or more traits for filtering through sires to identify those to use in the herd. Such a strategy can have a very significant impact on the resulting sire selection, which is often not considered.

The ideal strategy for producers to achieve their breeding objectives is first to rank sires based on their preferred selection index (i.e. Pro$ or LPI). Once the highest sires for that index are identified, then the second step is to determine how to best incorporate them in your herd by avoiding matings that result in too much inbreeding and/or a higher risk of carrying an undesirable genetic recessive such as the gene associated with Cholesterol Deficiency.

Two national genetic selection indexes, LPI and Pro$, have a critical role to play. Canadian Dairy Network (CDN) and each breed association provides lists of top animals with proven sires, genomic young bulls, cows and heifers, ranked based on their LPI and Pro$.  These indexes have been developed and implemented to guide Canadian producers in terms of setting their breeding goals and then realizing them. Select which index best suits your breeding goals and then stick with it to select the sires to use in your herd while managing the inbreeding level and likelihood of genetic recessives for each mating.

Recall that Pro$ was introduced in August 2015 as a profit-based index that ranks sires and cows according to the net profit that their daughters are expected to realize during the first six years of their life. Compared to Pro$, producers using LPI as their primary selection index can expect more genetic progress for conformation traits but slower gains for production yields and both indexes have a similar expected response for most functional traits.

To consult the full article, click here: https://www.cdn.ca/document.php?id=470.

 

Canadian dairy researcher and extension specialists awarded!

The Order of Agronomists of Quebec awarded Dr. Hélène Lapierre (AAFC), Steve Adam (Valacta) and Julie Baillargeon (Valacta) for their contributions to advancing dairy research and extension. The awards were delivered at their annual conference in Sherbrooke, Quebec held on September 21-22, 2017.

Award of Merit for Agronomy

Unknown-1Dr. Hélène Lapierre, AAFC Sherbrooke Research and Development Centre

Dr. Lapierre has close to 30 years experience as a research scientist at AAFC working with dairy cows. One of her major achievements was to develop unique insights into how nitrogen is used by dairy cows. Nitrogen is an important part of a cow’s diet because it is the key component of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. The findings of the research will help improve the formulation models used to develop feed rations for dairy cows. The new formulations, which will cut the protein content of the rations, will increase revenues for dairy farms while reducing releases of pollutants into the environment.

The results of her research over her career have been published in 136 scientific articles, 19 scientific reviews and book chapters and 206 scientific oral presentations and posters.

Medals of Distinction for Agronomy

Steve Adam, Dairy Production Expert on Animal Comfort, Behaviour and Well-being, Valacta and Julie Baillargeon, Technology Transfer and Research Project Coordinator, Valacta

Steve Adam and Julie Baillargeon were awarded the medal of distinction for agronomy in recognition of their exceptional work in the context of a training program on animal comfort. The Barn, A source of comfort was developed to explain the importance of animal comfort for dairy cattle and provide dairy producers with knowledge and practical solutions to apply in their barns.

Together, Steve and Julie surveyed, reviewed and translated the most pertinent research results to develop the program. Much of the research involved dairy farms in Quebec and Canada, with projects financed in large part under the Dairy Research Cluster.

The program and information received wide coverage: it was accessed in 26 countries and to date, their videos were viewed over 20,000 times. Moreover, they were an integral part of a team in partnership with Dairy Farmers of Canada that adapted the program into a series of six webinars (3 english and 3 french) and delivered the information to dairy producers across the country.

Congratulations to our colleagues for their outstanding achievements!

 

Nutrition Symposium 2017: Celebrating Women’s Health.

2017Dairy Farmers of Canada’s symposium entitled Celebrating Women’s Health examines a number of important aspects related to nutrition and health for women. The following topics will be presented by renowned speakers:

  • Weight bias and stigma
  • The role of protein in aging
  • Bone health across the lifespan
  • Nutritional needs of active women

To consult the program and register, visit DairyNutrition.ca.

 

This event is organized in collaboration with:

DFC Adopts New Knowledge Translation and Transfer Strategy

KTTstrat

On July 17, 2017, the DFC Board of Directors adopted its new National Strategy for Dairy Production Research Knowledge Translation and Transfer (download your copy at DairyResearch.ca). The goals are to facilitate collaboration and coordination for knowledge translation and transfer, maximize the effectiveness of the transfer of research results and aim to increase innovation on farms.

The strategy was adopted following a recommendation made by DFC’s Canadian Dairy Research Council (a DFC Board committee comprised of representatives of provincial dairy organizations and six members from its Board of Directors). The strategy will be in effect immediately.

 

Dairy knowledge at your fingertips: Online reference documents on animal care and environmental best practices to mitigate GHGs

Reference documents on mitigating GHGs from dairy farms:  cropping, nutrition and manure management best practices

Published based on the results of a five-year study led by the University of Guelph’s Dr. Claudia Wagner-Riddle and her collaborators under the Agriculture Greenhouse Gas Program (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada), the contents target recommended management practices that can contribute to GHG reductions. The practices were validated by a group of Canadian scientific experts working in the field of dairy and the environment, including studies financed by DFC under the Dairy Research Cluster. Click on the titles below to download a copy.

For printed copies, contact shelley.crabtree@dairyresearch.ca

Animal care:  lameness, body condition score, and hock, neck and knee injuries

Three easy-to-follow reference documents on lameness, body condition score, and hock, neck and knee injuries were distributed to over 6,000 dairy farmers in the past six months to provide resource material for the proAction animal care validation starting in the fall of 2017. The material was developed with extension, scientific and proAction experts and the outcomes based on scientific findings financed by DFC and its partners under the Dairy Research Cluster. Click on the titles below to download a copy.

For printed copies, contact shelley.crabtree@dairyresearch.ca

Automatic milking systems: how lameness may be affecting milk production in the herd and what you can do about it

feedingpackAutomatic milking systems (AMS) use has increased in the dairy industry in the last few years. Seven percent of all Canadian dairy farms were using some type of AMS in 2015 according to Statistics Canada. But like all new systems, there are benefits and challenges.

A research project investigating lameness in AMS farms (funded by the Dairy Research Cluster 2) led by PhD student Meagan King under the supervision of Dr. Trevor DeVries at the University of Guelph, the team found that one of the challenges of AMS herds was the identification of mildly lame cows. Lameness has an impact on the entire herd, and not just at the cow level. In fact, an increased lameness prevalence of the whole herd reduces overall production.

In the study, 41 robotic herds were surveyed and data about management, barn design, and lameness prevalence was collected. Researchers then looked at risk factors for lameness at the herd and cow-level, as well as factors related to productivity, efficiency, and cow behaviour.

They collected data by visiting 26 farms in Ontario and 15 farms in Alberta. Producers in each farm were asked about feeding, manure, and bedding management. Researchers recorded details regarding barn design and stocking density of cows relative to feed bunk space, lying stall availability, and the number of robots on each farm. They also scored a representative sample of cows at each farm for lameness (gait) to get an accurate estimate of their lameness prevalence, on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being sound to 5 being extremely lame).

Results

Increased prevalence of severe lameness is related to reduced milk production per cow and per robot. The researchers found that on average, less than 2% of the cows gait-scored were classified as severely lame (gait score of ≥4 out of 5). However, they found on average 26% of the cows gait-scored were moderately to severely lame (gait score of ≥3 out of 5). The majority of the lame cows they observed had a gait score of 3 out of 5.

In the AMS environments studied, cows with a slight, but noticeable limp, are fetched 2.2 times more, milked 0.3 times less per day, and produce 1.6 kg/day less milk than sound cows. The research also suggests that producers are doing a good job of identifying and treating severe lameness cases in their herd. But, the team found that producers have a harder time identifying the mild to moderate cases of lameness (which are labelled to ‘monitor’ under the proAction animal care assessment program).

Manure management had a significant impact on lameness prevalence on farms: herds that scraped manure from walking alleys more frequently had a lower prevalence of moderate lameness and lower rates of fetching cows. Cleaner floors improve the mobility of cows, which is important when those cows walk to a robot to be milked then back to their stalls or feeding area.

Stocking density affected production and lameness on farms: greater stocking density in lying stalls was related to higher severe lameness prevalence, and led to producers having to fetch more cows. Although a higher stocking density at the robot was associated with increased production per robot, it also reduced milking frequency per cow.

Cows with low body condition and cows of higher parity were more likely to be lame. This is consistent with other research: thin cows also have a thin digital cushion in their hooves, predisposing them to mechanical causes of lameness (i.e. sole ulcers).

RECOMMENDATIONS

  • These findings suggest that producers should manage, monitor and treat lameness early to improve animal care and prevent loss of production in AMS environments, similarly to other barn and stall types. Some ways to achieve this is to get trained to gait score cows and identify those mild cases of lameness and take corrective action. Producers should also be aware of cows’ body condition as thinner cows may have more underlying problems that should be investigated.

  • Producers with AMS should aim to keep floors clean to give cows an appropriate surface to walk on to and from the robot, as well as giving cows enough clean, comfortable, well-bedded resting space to maximize animal comfort, production potential and prevent lameness.

Resources and links

https://www.dairyresearch.ca/cow-comfort.php#self

http://www.journalofdairyscience.org/article/S0022-0302(17)30330-2/abstract

http://www.journalofdairyscience.org/article/S0022-0302(16)30591-4/fulltext

 Meagan King is a PhD candidate in the Department of Animal Biosciences at the University of Guelph. Emilie Belage is an MSc graduate from the Department of Population Medicine at the University of Guelph and veterinary medicine student at Michigan State University.