It is possible to breed for resilience in dairy cows. But is it possible to feed for it? What are the nutritional options?
Resilience is a concept that acknowledges unpredictability and emphasizes the need to enable adaptability and transformability of systems instead of optimizing them. A farm management approach based on resilience comes up with systems and solutions that can absorb and accommodate future events in whatever unexpected form they may come. It follows that resources are allocated to strategies that allow reducing the impact of a wide variety of potential unknown events and on identifying emergent opportunities.
Farm resilience is characterized by the ability to:
(1) constantly evolve while protecting against shocks to the system
(2) readjust to adapt to stressors
(3) to implement strategies to take advantage of strengths
and (4) to continually adapt to the current situation (Darnhofer 2009)
Increasing diversity and adaptive capacity of farm systems have been highlighted as key drivers to improve farm resilience and the ability of farms to cope with different types of disruption and stressors.
Farm resilience starts in the cow
In a dairy production system, farm resilience also depends on how well cows can cope with unforeseen challenges in their feed and their environment. As the cow is an integral part of the system, she is expected to be resilient and less sensitive to stressors and sub-optimal circumstances. This is because less resilient cows will have greater fluctuations in their milk performance and quality leading to a decreased cost-effectiveness of dairy rations and a lower likelihood of reaching performance targets. Consequently, fluctuations in farm profits are bound to occur.
Lower resilience in cows can also lead to increased susceptibility of disease which can cause further losses in the long run. More resilient cows put fewer constraints on new farming systems and require fewer drugs, without compromising health or economic efficiency and are less likely to be prematurely culled. This again affects the sustainability and long-term profitability of the dairy sector.
Resilience in dairy cows – advantages
- more flexibility and adaptive capacity for the farm system
- greater consistency in milk production
- greater consistency in milk quality
- longer production lives, longevity
- more stable farm incomes
- fewer treatments and drugs
- easier to manage cows and reduction in labour time
- improved cow welfare
Resilience in dairy cows depends on adaptive capacity
Resilience is determined by how the cow responds and adapts to stressors or in other words by her adaptive capacity. The transition period for instance is a critical time that requires a high capacity to adapt to lactation. But milk production and quality will also depend on how the cow responds to other stressors, such as heat and mycotoxins. Most stressors will provoke stress reactions in the form of reduced feed intake, oxidative stress, inflammatory responses or changes in rumen efficiency. The extent of these stress reactions is determined by the adaptive capacity of the cow, which again determines the impact stressors can have on key performance parameters, health and longevity of the cow and how quickly she recovers.
Gut agility – feeding for adaptive capacity
Nutrition can play an active role in management strategies designed to reduce the impact of stressors on dairy cow well-being and performance. New nutritional concepts, such as gut agility activators, are designed to support the adaptive capacity of dairy cows for improved resilience.