Our contract milking system is contributing to the number of lame cows in NZ. This may seem like a strange thing to say but from a lameness perspective, the contract milking system has one major issue that could be easily fixed if people recognize the problem and change the contract accordingly.
Let me explain what I mean.
For years we have been blaming the stones on the tracks and the pushing, twisting and turning of cows on the concrete as the cause of lame cows. There is no evidence to back up those claims but that is where we believe the problem stems from. So, to solve the problem we just need to handle our cows with patience, and we will not have a problem, right? If you are a farm owner who has a contract milker, or sharemilker for that matter, managing your farm and lameness is an issue then I can imagine it would be very frustrating at times to see many lame cows when you believe all you need to do is to take it easier on the animal handling front.
Unfortunately, it is not that easy. Sure, if you push cows and are impatient with them you will have more lameness to deal with but that is not because of stones or the pressure on the hooves. Physical force is only secondary to hoof health as a risk factor. The primary problem is stress-related rather than physical force related and the main issue that we have on our pasture-based farms is the time budget. I have mentioned this plenty of times in the past.
The problem is that when cows are not spending enough time in the paddock, they lack resting time and eating time. These are basic needs that the cow has and if they are not met properly, a cow can’t function properly. That is why 16-hour milking or smaller herds are so effective in minimising lameness as your cows get more time in the paddock where they can take on normal cow behaviour (grazing, laying down, drinking and socializing).
What has this got to do with our contract milking system? Well, if the problem is not the stones but a time budget issue then we need to manage our cows differently in how we run the farm. One solution could be to split the cows into smaller herds. The benefit is that the last cow will be out of the paddock for a shorter time. The challenge is that it takes more man-hours to walk the cows to the cowshed because there are more herds and it is usually the contract milker or sharemilker who pays for the staff.
Why would they spend more money on labour if the benefits go primarily to the farm owner? So, who should pay for the extra labour unit? If farm owners understand the benefits of having more smaller herds then it would make a lot of sense to pay for one labour unit or change the contract to allow for an extra labour unit. If you have 300 lame cows in a year and each lame cow costs you $500, then you have a $150 000 loss in profit. If you could halve that cost by having more smaller herds would it not make sense to pay for an extra labour unit?
I know that it is not always as easy as that when you have the bank breathing down your neck, but I think that this is a very real issue we need to be aware of so we can make well-informed business decisions.