The economics of disease

“The total economic damage caused by production diseases in livestock is larger than the damage caused by notifiable diseases such as foot and mouth.”

This is according to Henk Hogeveen, an associate professor at the Business Economics of Wageningen University and the Department of Farm Animal Health of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of Utrecht University.

He was speaking at the Cattle Association of Veterinary Ireland conference this weekend. Hogeveen said the economic damage caused by production diseases, which are chronic in nature, is spread out over the year. He said farm accounting reports give all types of detail about the costs of production, such as feeding costs, machinery costs and health costs comprising veterinary fees and veterinary medicines.  

“These are only a small proportion of the total economic damage of a production disease.  The total costs of disease can be large.  For instance, for the Dutch dairying situation, it was estimated that the costs of health and fertility problems accounted for 10 per cent of the gross production value.”

Hogeveen said a good understanding of the costs of a disease is important to support decisions of farmers with regard to animal health.

He said whilst production functions can vary from farm to farm, it is possible to be pragmatic and identify factors to determine the cost of disease. These are:  decreased milk production, veterinary services, diagnostics, drugs/medicines, discarded milk, labour, decreased product quality, increased risk of new cases of the same disease or of other diseases, increased risk of culling and the materials and investments for prevention, he added.

Automatic milking

The conference also aimed to bring veterinary practitioners up to speed with developments in precision agriculture, such as robotic milking and real-time monitoring of dairy cows.

In his second presentation at the Veterinary Ireland conference, Hogeveen explored the concept of precision dairy farming developments, evolving since the introduction of electronic cow recognition.

Hogeveen cited the Dutch example, where automatic milking was first introduced in 1992.  “From an economic point of view, automatic milking is not cost-effective.  Several studies have been published on economic consequences of automatic milking using normative models. The general trend in these studies was that automatic milking has negative effects on the economic performance of the farm when compared with conventional miking.”

Hogeveen said that despite this, the introduction of automatic milking has gone quite fast in north-western Europe. “Farms milking with an automatic milking system seem to be those farms that are working mostly with family labour who see the use of automatic milking as a way of increasing their farm size without the burden, risk and management of hiring external labour.  For larger farms, having experience with hired labour, the situation is different.”

Some of the developments in precision dairy farming technologies are associated with the introduction of automatic milking, where the detection of normal clinical mastitis can not be done as readily by visual inspection of the milk and/or udder.

Hogeveen said  farmers are able to detect clinical mastitis as part of standard milking procedures and have information about somatic cell count measurements within milk recording data to help them to identify potential subclinical mastitis.

Therefore the ‘added value’ of PDF technology in relation to mastitis detection is unclear.  However where automatic milking systems are introduced visual inspections of the cow and her milk become more labourious and therefore mastitis detection systems are being more widely used.

Automatic estrus detection is an area of precision dairy farming that can save labour in terms of the time spent on visual inspection of cows; coupled with increased estrus detection rates.