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Are your cows comfortable?

Marcia Endres

Published in Dairy Star February 14, 2009

Have you observed your cows’ legs and feet lately? Watched them walking? What about their eyes? Have you taken a close look at their production and health records? Cows are talking… showing us in many ways if they are comfortable in the environment and management we provide. Cows can give us signs, by how they look, perform and behave, on whether or not they are at ease. We all agree they deserve to be comfortable. It is our ‘contract’ with them. Give us milk and we give you a good environment, protection, feed and water, veterinary care, etc. Limited research has shown that a comfortable cow produces more milk.

Cow comfort is becoming a hotter topic in our industry. The general public is more and more interested in learning how their food is being produced, and that includes animal care and well being. The economic downturn has now reached the dairy industry too, and we need to look for ways to get more milk per cow without increasing production costs. Cow comfort is an important factor for optimum performance.

In recent years, we have learned more about how cows see the world and what is important to them. When evaluating cow comfort, there are many areas to consider: cow care and observation, feeding management, water availability, ventilation and heat abatement, cow grouping, cow movement, stocking density, stalls, floors, cow handling, etc.

In the November 22, 2008 issue, I wrote about the importance of slow and quiet cow handling. It can improve productivity and reduce the incidence of lameness, injuries and disease. It costs nothing… just some time training ourselves and our employees on how to work with cows in a calm manner. It can pay nice dividends. Cows may not produce 10 more pounds of milk, but every small increase counts.

Heat abatement is important even in Minnesota. I know we don’t think much about it during the cold winter but before summer arrives, clean your fans for maximum efficiency. In naturally ventilated freestall barns, it is ideal to have fans over the stalls and the feed alley, and soakers over the feed alley. This will help minimize the loss of milk production during hot days. We are currently doing research comparing low profile cross-ventilated freestall barns with naturally ventilated freestall barns. Cross-ventilated barns appear to keep cows cool during the summer and prevent manure from freezing during the winter. Their heat abatement effect will be less during humid days, so they probably work better in areas of the state that are generally drier. Tie-stalls have benefited from using tunnel ventilation.

Behavior of dairy cows is affected by heat and humidity. Research in a freestall barn in Wisconsin showed that cows lay down 3 hours less per day when the temperature and humidity index increased from 52 to 73. In compost barns, we observed reduction in lying time of about 4 hours per day when the index was greater than 72 compared to less than 72. Limited research suggests that each hour increase in lying time can result in an increase of 2 to 3 pounds of milk per day.

Resting time is essential for cow health and performance. Various aspects of freestall design and maintenance are keys to better comfort. Evaluate stalls by measuring the width, length, brisket board height and location, neck rail height, bob zone obstructions, curb height, stall divider opening and position, etc. Examine whether the stall surface offers cows optimal cushion and traction. Evaluate bedding moisture and cleanliness. In addition, an important thing to do is to watch how cows are using the stalls. How many cows are lying down in stalls? At any one time, of all cows in a stall, no more than 20% should be standing in the stall. Observe how cows are rising and note if they can express natural behavior. Do they lie down easily or do they hesitate for many minutes beforehand? If they hesitate, there might be some characteristics of the stalls affecting their comfort.

When you bring cows to the parlor or walk in the barn, the holding pen and the returning alleys, pay attention to floors. Are they well grooved or slippery? Do they offer good traction? Do they have any holes and imperfections that could cause injury? Watch how your cows walk. Do they walk confidently or hesitantly? Slippery floors can cause stress and injuries. Stressed cows produce less milk. Lameness incidence can increase in your herd. Lameness is very costly and a huge animal welfare issue.

Many other factors are important for optimum cow comfort and productivity. We just briefly discussed some of the issues in this article. Look, observe, and understand the signs cows are giving to let you know whether they are comfortable. Your cows are talking… are you listening?

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