Ketosis, a negative energy balance problem, dogs dairy producers almost everywhere. It affects up to 40 per cent of dairy cows in Canada, and can lead to reduced milk yield, impaired reproduction, weight loss and fever. As well, it puts affected cows at increased risk of developing other health conditions, such as metritis and mastitis.
A recent University of Guelph study shows every case of ketosis costs producers about $300 in lost milk production and veterinary care.
Yet despite its prevalence — and the fact that there’s been a tonne of research on it over the past 15 years — producers have a hard time getting a handle on it. Although it causes many problems, it often goes undetected. The clinical signs for ketosis are often not present or missed; some call it a “hidden” disease.
Ideally, on-farm testing should take place weekly, for quick identification and treatment of ketosis.
But Todd Duffield, professor in the Department of Population Medicine at the University of Guelph, says many producers don’t have a rigorous on-farm ketosis monitoring program…or, in fact, any monitoring programs for ketosis.
More recently, many are starting to rely on regular DHI tests to monitor for ketosis, through a new test being offered by CanWest DHI called Ketoscreen. Duffield calls this testing service a tremendous improvement over not testing at all. However, these tests happen only every 30-40 days. So producers may miss the first two weeks after calving, when the cow is most susceptible to negative energy balance.
Even producers who conduct more frequent on-farm monitoring, though, often record their results manually. That makes herd-level analysis and data sharing difficult.
Duffield says another reason ketosis is so stubbornly hanging on is that the plethora of research results and presentations available about the condition may not be getting the kind of uptake they need to be practiced in the field.
So, he’s doing something about it.
Duffield has pulled together a research team that includes fellow dairy health specialist Stephen Leblanc and a U of Guelph big data specialist, Rozita Dara, and created a new smartphone program and app called iKetone. It’s a precision-agriculture approach to the problem, designed to synthesize on-farm ketosis monitoring data, and promote regular ketosis testing.
The way Duffield describes it, iKetone allows producers to enter and monitor test results for each cow. When the data is processed, producers can also get a look at whole herd health and bigger trends that may require management changes, such as feed or housing.
The app also allows producers to share data with nutritionists, veterinarians and others, creating a virtually connected community of care to support overall herd health.
Duffield hopes that providing farmers with an app that stores and synthesizes ketosis monitoring data, removes a barrier to regular testing.
After all, dairy farmers are tech savvy, carry their smart phones with them constantly and — he figures — only need a bit of encouragement, and the kind of opportunity iKetone presents, to kick up their management a notch through frequent testing.
“The biggest advantage to frequent testing is a herd-level approach to monitoring,” says Duffield. “Herd-level testing is proactive, and not reactive. Being proactive promotes good health instead of just reacting to instances of poor health.”