With expansion of the dairy sector over the last decade, there are more cows on farms and more people working on farms.

These people are bringing new knowledge, new skills and new ways of doing things.

Many of these people are from non-farming backgrounds or from overseas.

It’s fair to say that most farmers learn their tacit skills of animal husbandry from their parents and grandparents.

But what if your parents or grandparents weren’t dairy farming, as is the case with some of the new entrants and new employees on dairy farms?

Spotting a sick animal early is well known to improve the outcome.

Sick animals that are left untreated will go further into the spiral of sickness, eat less, produce less and lose more body condition score and have an ever-reducing immunity.

So, early identification is key, whether that’s for mastitis, a displaced abomasum or pneumonia. It’s a real skill that comes with experience but, like all skills, it can be taught.


Of course, technology has a role to play also and there are now many automated health detection systems on the market which can identify cows that are off-form, either through changes to temperature, less time spent eating or more time spent lying down.

However, these products are expensive to purchase and while they are undoubtedly a big help, they don’t replace animal welfare skills.

Key signs of an off-form animal

1 Dull eyes, head down: a healthy animal will be bright and alert whereas a sick animal will be dull looking. Sunken or dull eyes are a sign of dehydration because the animal isn’t taking in enough water or feed.

2 Temperature change: the temperature of a healthy dairy cow is between 38°C and 39.3°C taken from the rectum. Deviations above or below this are a sign of ill health. If unsure if an animal is sick or not, checking the temperature is a very good way of knowing more about the animal. A high or a low temperature will affirm a suspicion that an animal is sick.

3 Off-feed: this is a really obvious sign that an animal is off-form. The best time to judge this is soon after bringing cows back to a shed, where fresh silage was put out.

A heathy cow will almost always go and eat fresh silage. In the same way if cows are turned out to grass after milking, a healthy cow will always be grazing the new allocation vigorously. If a cow decides to lie down in the field or in the shed and ignore the fresh grass or fresh silage, that’s a bad sign.

Another good way of detecting health problems is by keeping an eye on cows not eating their ration in the parlour. If they leave meal behind and all other animals eat their meal, then that’s a bad sign too.

The same applies for calves and youngstock being fed meal at grass or in a shed. Off-feed is usually a sign of stomach problems and could indicate acidosis, ketosis or a displaced abomasum.

4 Last into the parlour: cows that are slow on their feet or are last into the milking parlour when they are normally not the last in could also indicate a health problem and not just lameness.

The same applies for cows or cattle that are not with the rest of the herd out in the field. That is why it is so important to count stock in a field daily, because even if the main bunch all look healthy and well, there could be a sick animal lying in a hollow or up against a hedgerow.

If all the stock are accounted for, then there is nothing to worry about but if there is an animal missing, then that will prompt the farmer to go looking for the animal that has either escaped or is sick or injured.

Sick calves should be isolated, kept warm and treated promptly.

5 Sick calves: when it comes to calves, being observant at feeding time is probably the best chance to spot a sick or off-form calf.

A healthy calf will be looking forward to getting fed and then suck the teat vigorously with their tail wagging when getting fed.

A sick calf will show less interest in being fed and if the calf does suck, then it will be slow to suck and may not take on enough milk, particularly if being fed in a group feeder.

For calves on automatic feeders, the machines will alert farmers to any calves missing feeds or being slow drinkers, which might indicate a health problem.

These calves need further investigating to make sure they are not sick. Of course, there are more obvious signs of ill health in calves such as scour, wheezing or general weakness.

Lameness isn't normal and should be treated as soon as possible.

6 Lameness: while a lame cow is pretty obvious, for some people, identifying lameness is knowing the difference between normal and abnormal.

On some farms, there are always a few lame cows in a herd and to them that’s normal. But really, there should be no lame cows in a herd, or at least no lame cows not getting treatment.

Early identification and early treatment of lameness is critical, as is prevention.

Because the vast majority of lameness in Ireland is caused by injuries to the hoof due to stones or other foreign objects, the majority of lameness can be prevented. Furthermore, it takes a lot of pain for a cow to display that she is lame. This goes back to the herd mentality where displaying lameness is a sign of weakness. In pre-farming times, lame animals in a herd were at risk of being rejected by the herd as they risked the herd being attacked by predators.

So cows that are showing signs of lameness are in real pain and need prompt treatment.