Genetics of health and lameness in dairy cattle
Obike, Onyemauchechi Mercy
For the modern dairy cow, advances in genetics and breeding for productivity has resulted in an increasing incidence of health disorders and reduced longevity. One of the most important health problems is lameness, which has led to significant economic, production and welfare consequences. A reduction in lameness will improve the economic future of the dairy industry through increased profitability and decreased welfare-related problems. Although positive attempts have been made by researchers and the industry towards improving lameness, it has remained a persistent ailment for dairy farmers. Further analysis of the genetic and environmental factors influencing lameness is warranted so that selection indices and management practices can be modified leading to improved health and welfare of the dairy cow. Several factors that cause dairy cow lameness have been implicated. I reviewed previous studies on these causative factors as well as the association between lameness, longevity and fertility. It has also been suggested that lameness affects milk production of dairy cows, but reports on the association between lameness and daily milk yield of cows have varied among researchers. Using locomotion score data on 248 cows from the Langhill herd, I investigated the relationship between locomotion score which has a high genetic correlation with lameness and various explanatory variables and also the association between daily milk yield and lameness. The study revealed that the most significant factors affecting locomotion are management regime (high concentrate feed and all year indoor housing; low concentrate feed and outdoors in summer) and time of year when cows are locomotion scored. It also showed that lameness adversely affects the milk yield of later lactation cows, and that high yielding cows are more susceptible to lameness. Housing environment plays a significant role in the health and welfare of dairy cows. With national type evaluation records, I estimated the association between housing systems and lameness-related type traits as well as genetic parameters for the locomotion traits. The analysis indicated that cows kept at pasture had favourable linear and composite type trait scores compared with cows in cubicles, straw yards and slatted floors or loafing yards. Locomotion score had strong genetic and phenotypic correlations with the leg and feet composite. Bone quality, which is a new trait in the UK type classification scheme, was moderately heritable (0.23) and had a moderate and positive genetic association with locomotion and leg and feet composite. This suggests that breeding for flatter, more refined bones could reduce locomotion disorders and help improve the longevity of the dairy cow. Analysis of national data again showed reduced incidence of digital dermatitis (DD) for cows at pasture and those with flatter, more refined bones, higher locomotion score and better leg and feet composite. Estimates of genetic parameters indicated heritable variation of DD among cows and moderate genetic associations between DD and production traits and longevity. Incorporating DD in future selection indices will be useful for increased productive life. Using random regression, I analysed changes in type traits associated with lameness (locomotion, rear legs, side view, foot angle and leg and feet composite) in relation to time (months) that cows had spent in cubicles before being classified. The general trend supported the fact that cubicle housing is unfavourable to these traits. There was significant evidence of a genotype x environment interaction, suggesting variation between bulls in the sensitivity of their daughters to cubicle housing with time.