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One of the biggest economical and sustainability issues of the modern dairy industry is the short lifespan of cows. The average parity of a dairy cow remains below 2.7 (Hu et al., 2021). This means that in a herd, half of the cows have given birth to only one or two calves, and that they are removed way before they reach their peak performance at the third, fourth and fifth lactation cycle. Especially when a primiparous cow is eliminated, the costs of its lifetime maintenance way exceed the profits from its milk yield, and the carbon footprint of a unit of milk becomes very high.

Compared to the average parity of 2.7, the genetic potential of a cow to live for 20 years sounds extraordinary. It has been estimated that in Canada, the average age for a dairy cow to die for natural causes is 9.1 years (Dallago et al., 2021). In fact, the genetic potential for longevity has improved over the past ten years, so clearly there is potential to increase the profitability and sustainability of dairy farming by maintaining the health and reproductive capacity of the animals.

The most common reasons for culling a dairy cow are infertility, mastitis, and lameness (Dallago et al., 2021). The problems can often be traced back to the transition – also called periparturient – period. At the onset of lactation, the cow is not fully able to meet the rapidly increasing need for energy by intake of feed, which leads into negative energy balance and immunological, endocrine and oxidative challenges (Lopreiato et al. 2020). Hypocalcemia, rumen acidosis, and subclinical ketosis, often seen during the periparturient period, further increase the risk of inflammations.

High-quality feeds and careful nutritional planning are obviously the cornerstones of dairy cow management during the transition period. Key targets are maintenance of glucose and calcium balances, and reduction of ketone bodies and free fatty acids in the blood, which then further increase the feed intake. With all this accomplished, a true potential still remains for aiding a smooth transition with feed supplements (Lopreiato et al. 2020). A recently published study with transition dairy cows showed that dietary supplementation of diets with coniferous resin acids significantly reduced the number of cows with sickness or inflammation by 55% and 38%, respectively (Figure 1; Kairenius et al., 2021). In the same study, the number of cow-days with sickness or inflammation were decreased by dietary resin acids by 44% and 36%, respectively (p < 0.1; Figure 1).

Figure 1. Number of cows and number of cow-days with sickness/inflammation with or without dietary resin acids

Thus, on average, dietary resin acids reduced the health problems of transition cows in this experiment by 43.2%. It is reasonable to expect that a reduction of health issues at this magnitude translates into reduced need for culling these animals from the herd.

The exact anti-inflammatory mechanisms-of-action of dietary resin acids have not been studied in ruminants. However, results from monogastric animals have suggested improved intestinal homeostasis, including better gut barrier functions with reduced collagen degradation in the gut wall, less inflammatory cells in the gut mucosa, and a more balanced intestinal microbiota.

In Kairenius et al. (2021), rumen microbiota was not much affected by the resin acids. Resin acids were found in the feces, suggesting that resin acids pass through the alimentary canal and have a chance to affect the gut tissue. The intestinal fatty acid binding protein (I-FABP), a biomarker of gut barrier function, was measured from the study of Kairenius et al. (2021) from the blood serum on weeks 2, 3, 6 and 10 after parturition. Over all time points, the I-FABP concentration was consistently lower, by an average of 11.7% (p < 0.1), in the resin acid treatment than control treatment. The result suggests less damage in the intestinal mucosa and gut barrier functions in resin acid-fed cows, compared to control cows.

In conclusion, dietary coniferous resin acids may help dairy cows through the challenging periparturient period, and thus indirectly increase the average lifespan of cows. Read also the blog “Resin acids for transition cows“.

Progres® from Hankkija Finnish Feed Innovations is the only feed material containing coniferous resin acids. Please contact your local distributor of Progres® for more information.


Dallago, G.M., Wade, K.M.,  Cue, R.I., McClure, J.T., Lacroix, R., Pellerin, and D.,  Vasseur, E. 2021. Keeping Dairy Cows for Longer: A Critical Literature Review on Dairy Cow Longevity in High Milk-Producing Countries. Animals 11:808.

Hu, H., Mu, T., Ma, Y., Wang, X. and Ma, Y. (2021) Analysis of Longevity Traits in Holstein Cattle: A Review. Front. Genet. 12:695543.

Kairenius, P., Qin, N., Tapio, I., Mäntysaari, P., Franco, M., Lidauer, P., Stefański, T., Lidauer, M.H., Junnikkala, S., Niku, M., Kettunen, H. and Rinne, M. (2021) The effects of dietary resin acid inclusion on productive, physiological and rumen microbiome responses of dairy cows during early lactation. Livestock Science 255:104798. Lopreiato, V., Mezzetti, M., Cattaneo, L., Ferronato, G., Minuti, A., and Trevisi, E. 2020. Role of nutraceuticals during the transition period of dairy cows: a review. J. Anim. Sci. Biotechnol. 11: 96.