Changes in milk lactose content as indicators for longevity and udder health in Holstein cows

A.I.A. Costa*, H. Bovenhuis, M. Penasa

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Changes in milk production traits over time might be informative of the health status of cows and may contain useful information for selective breeding purposes. In particular, early indicators are useful for traits such as longevity, which become available late in the cow's life. Lactose percentage (LP) tends to decrease in the presence of udder infection and with parity. Therefore, it can be hypothesized that cows exhibiting limited changes in LP across lactations have experienced fewer udder infections in their productive life and have a higher chance to stay longer in the herd than cows with more pronounced reduction of LP across lactations. In this study, 9 descriptors of change in LP during a cow's lifetime were defined and evaluated as potential indicators for selective breeding. For the purpose of this study, test-day records of the first 44 days in milk (DIM) of each lactation were discarded, and cows were required to have at least 5 test-days/cow per lactation (≥45 DIM) over the first 3 lactations. In this study, descriptors of LP were available for 69,586 Italian Holstein cows. Changes in LP in each lactation were quantified by regressing LP on DIM; thus, β1, β2, and β3 represented the changes in LP within lactations 1, 2, and 3, respectively. Changes in LP across multiple lactations were also quantified by regressing LP on DIM (with exclusion of the first 44 DIM of each lactation); briefly, β12 was the change of LP over lactation 1 and 2, β23 was the change of LP over lactation 2 and 3, and β123 was the change of LP over lactation 1, 2, and 3. Alternatively, changes in the LP lactation means (Δ) were quantified between lactations 1 and 2 (Δ12), 2 and 3 (Δ23), and 1 and 3 (Δ13). For comparison, β and Δ were also derived for milk yield (kg/d), somatic cell score, and log-transformed total somatic cells excreted daily in milk (units). Variance components and estimated breeding values (EBV) for all β's and Δ's were estimated. In addition, EBV for bulls with at least 25 daughters were used to assess Calo's genetic correlations between descriptors of change in LP with official published EBV for functional traits. Heritabilities for β and Δ of LP ranged from 0.06 (Δ23) to 0.20 (Δ13), and differed significantly from 0. Furthermore, LP EBV for β and Δ were correlated with official EBV for functional longevity index, udder health index, udder score (mammary gland morphology) index, and milk persistency; Calo's genetic correlations of LP β123 with functional longevity and udder health index were 0.52 and 0.33, respectively. Cows with a stronger reduction of LP across lactations (i.e., stronger and negative β, and greater and positive Δ) were characterized by lower milk persistency, impaired longevity, and worse udder health and morphology than cows with smaller reduction in LP across lactations. Results highlighted that changes in milk LP have the potential to be exploited as indicators for functional traits in Italian Holstein cattle. Further research on the biological relationship between changes in LP and mastitis is recommended.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)11574-11584
JournalJournal of Dairy Science
Issue number12
Early online date15 Oct 2020
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2020


  • breeding
  • indicator
  • lactose
  • trend
  • udder health

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