Dairy cow exercise for a longer lifespan

In dairy cattle, lameness is in the top 3 list of involuntary culling reasons. A well-functioning musculoskeletal system is essential for a cow to be able to graze, eat, and to be milked. Physical exercise may reduce the risk on health problems, and thereby contribute to a longer lifespan. The project "Dairy cow exercise for a longer lifespan” aims to investigate the impact of regular exercise on dairy cattle health, with financial support of the Dutch “Melkveefonds”.

In human research it was shown that the level of physical activity affects human health. Physical exercise during youth will influence the development of the musculoskeletal system; and exercise during adult life has a strong relationship with the energy, fat and protein metabolism. Physical exercise in dairy cattle may also help to reduce the risk of health problems (e.g. lameness, metabolic disorders) and improve the physical condition of cows. It is a generally accepted fact, that lame cows are less active. The other way around is relatively unexplored: will physical exercise reduce the risk for lameness in dairy cattle?

The level of physical activity of dairy cattle is often relatively limited, especially when cows are housed indoors. The average walking distance of cows on pasture in the Netherlands has been estimated at 5 km per day, including the distance covered by walking to and from the milking parlor. This will vary ofcourse, especially due to differences in the distance between milking parlor and pasture. In practice, the incidence of claw problems of cows on pasture is lower than when housed indoors. With grazing however, not only the level of exercise is different – cows will also be subjected to a different ration (fresh grass) and different housing circumstance (soft soil and bedding).

To study the effect of exercise on dairy cattle health and physiology, 36 multiparous dairy cows will be followed for a period of eight weeks. Half of the cows will be subjected to a training scheduling during this period, walking twice daily in a tread mill for 45 minutes. The walking speed is adapted to an easy cow pace, at 3.4 km/h.

During the trial, cows will be monitored thoroughly to determine the difference between the two groups. The individual milk production and feed intake are recorded, and weekly blood samples are taken to monitor metabolism. Cow behaviour will be recorded by sensors, measuring activity patterns. The heart rate will  be monitored, both at rest and during exercise, in order to measure the physical condition. All cows are scored weekly for their locomotion and the blood circulation in the lower legs.