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You think you're busy? Try being a cow

Jim Salfer

Published in Dairy Star July 22, 2006

When most of us think of the life of a cow - we think of a pretty easy life. Lie around most of the day, spend a few hours eating and getting milked, but otherwise they really don't have anything to do. Actually cows have pretty busy days. Researchers in Nebraska observed how cows spent their day in several herds. They also tracked the highest 10% production cows in the group to determine if their time budget was different than cows with average production. Table 1 shows those results.

Table 1. Time budget of cows by milk production level.

Several things can be noted and learned from their observations.

  1. High producing cows lie down more than the average cow. Other researchers have observed that high producing cows lie down close to 14 hours per day.
  2. Cows are busy with their normal activities. They need 12-14 hours to lie down, 5.5 hours to eat, 0.5 hours to drink. If you add a couple of hours to move between these activities, stand and groom themselves, and for social interaction, cows are already committed to approximately 21 hours per day. This only leaves 3 hours a day for management activities such as milking, treatments, veterinarian checks, etc.
  3. A comfortable lying surface is important. Hospitals and long term care facilities take great care to prevent bedsores on people that spend long periods of time lying down. In the same manner, what are the consequences of what a hard and uncomfortable surface does to your cows?
  4. All cows, irregardless of their production level, spend the same amount of time eating and drinking. However, cows with higher dry matter intake (high producing cows) eat and drink faster than the average cow.

Dr. Rick Grant from the Miner Institute used various research literature to estimate the effect that limiting lying time may have on milk production (Table 2). Overall, his data shows we can boost milk production over 2 lbs for every hour of increased lying time from a minimal time (7 hours/day) to a recommended 14 hours/day. Working with the cow's natural behavior will help increase cow health and well being.

Three areas of your farm should be evaluated to ensure that your cows have the ability to get the required lying time.

  1. Do cows have an inviting space to lie down? Evaluate the following characteristics of your stalls:
    • Does the stall base provide adequate cushion? Drop and rock on your knees in the stall. If your knees hurt, think of a 1500 lb cow needing to rock on her knees.
    • Is there adequate bedding to reduce sores from friction on the bed surface? If your cows' hocks are swollen and have the hair rubbed off, you may not be providing enough bedding.
    • Check to see if the stall surface provides traction when cows want to rise.
    • Does the stall allow adequate bob and lunge space when cows are rising? Cows need 24 inches of unobstructed lunge space.
    • Are cows able to rise naturally? Stalls should be designed to allow cows to take a stride when they rise. This means brisket boards no taller than 4 inches from the stall surface and no concrete behind the brisket board. The neck rail should be positioned so cows do not bang their necks when rising.
  2. After you are sure that your cows have a great lying space, evaluate your management to ensure that cows have the time to enjoy it.
    • Are there groups of cows that spend more than 2-3 hours per day away from their home pen?
    • How many hours are they in the holding area?
    • How long are they in a palpation rail waiting to be evaluated by the herd person or the veterinarian?
    • Add up all the time that management practices interrupt your cow's normal activities. If it is commonly more than three hours per day (including milking), work to see if activities can be changed to reduce this time.
  3. Another factor to consider is overcrowding. If cows are to lie down the recommended 14 hrs/day, then all cows need access to a quality stall when they desire to lie down.

Table 2. Estimated milk response related to increased lying time, using baseline (minimal) 7 hrs/day compared with recommended 14 hours/day.

Cows do have very busy days. However, having a good place for them to lie down and using management practices to allow them adequate time to lie will assure less stress and more comfort for your cows and more profit for your dairy operation.

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