There is an increasing push for dairy production to be scientifically grounded and ethically responsible in the oversight of animal health and well-being. Addressing underlying challenges affecting the quality and length of productive life necessitates novel assessment and accountability metrics. Human medical epidemiologists developed the Disability-Adjusted Life Year metric as a summary measure of health addressing the complementary nature of disease and death. The goal of this project was to develop and implement a dairy Disease-Adjusted Lactation (DALact) summary measure of health, as a comparison against cumulative disease frequency. Methods: A total of 5694 cows were enrolled at freshening from January 1st, 2014 through May 26th, 2015 on 3 similarly managed U.S. Midwestern Plains' region dairies. Eleven health categories of interest were tracked from enrollment until culling, death, or the study's completion date. The DALact accounted for the days of life lost due to illness, forced removal, and death relative to the average lactation length across the participating farms. Results: The DALact consistently identified mastitis as the primary disease of concern on all 3 dairies (19,007-23,955 days lost). Secondary issues included musculoskeletal injuries (19,559 days), pneumonia (11,034 days), or lameness (8858 days). By comparison, cumulative frequency measures pointed to mastitis (31-50%) and lameness (25-54%) as the 2 most frequent diseases. Notably, the DALact provided a robust accounting of health events such as musculoskeletal injuries (5010-19,559 days) and calving trauma (2952-5868 days) otherwise overlooked by frequency measures (0-3%). Conclusions: The DALact provides a time-based method for assessing the overall burden of disease on dairies. It is important to emphasize that a summary measure of dairy health goes beyond simply linking morbidity to culling and mortality in a standardized fashion. A summary measure speaks to the burden of disease on both the well-being and productivity of individuals and populations. When framed as lost days, years, or lactations the various health issues on a farm are more comprehensible than they may be by frequency measures alone. Such an alternative accounting of disease highlights the lost opportunity costs of production as well as the burden of disease on life as a whole.
McConnel, C. S., McNeil, A. A., Hadrich, J. C., Lombard, J. E., Heller, J., & Garry, F. B. (2018). A comparison of a novel time-based summary measure of dairy cow health against cumulative disease frequency. Irish Veterinary Journal, 71(1), 1-14. . https://doi.org/10.1186/s13620-018-0119-z