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Cow comfort must-do’s for an extra few litres of milk

Tamara Scully for Progressive Dairyman Published on 28 February 2018

Dr. Gordie Jones, an independent dairy performance consultant and partner in Central Sands Dairy in Wisconsin, is a recognized expert in freestall facility design.

Ironically, he began his career as a fierce supporter of tiestall facilities, believing freestalls were detrimental to cow comfort and health. Cows, he thought, could not be kept clean, dry or comfortable in a freestall environment. Today, he is a leading designer of freestall barns, including many for very large operations.

He designed Fair Oaks Farm dairy in Indiana for more than 20,000 cows and Central Sands Dairy, which houses more than 3,500 milking cows.

Dairy herd size is going to be increasing for every dairyman, according to Jones, who predicts the size of dairy herds will double four times in an average dairy farmer’s lifetime.

“I now realize we can keep them better in a freestall, or keep them as well in a freestall. Today, I am one of the world’s experts in freestalls,” Jones said in a recent presentation on facility design and cow comfort. “It doesn’t matter what size. Achieving excellence is size-neutral.”

Achieving health

Central Sands Dairy houses its milking herd in a four-row barn, with sand-bedded stalls. They have a six-row dry cow barn. Cows are milked in a 72-cow rotary parlour.

A methane digester, along with a 22-million-gallon concrete lagoon, helps handle the manure. Their Jersey herd seasonally calves, with 300 to 600 calves born per year.

They practice “just-in-time” calving. The herd maintains a somatic cell count of about 125,000 to 150,000, depending on the season. Production levels are 30 to 32 litres of milk per day.

Jones is not concerned about germs. He commingled cows from multiple dairies across 19 states in his herd.

“I already have every bug in North America. I invited them in,” Jones said. “None of them show up because of great ventilation, because of good beds and because of good rations for dry and milk cows. Cows don’t get problems unless we fail them.”

Well-run dairies focus on three related components: air quality and ventilation, bunk management and cow comfort. Comfortable cows are fed well, rest well and perform well.

Three major areas that need attention are nutrition, dry cows and cow comfort. If dairy farmers take better care of the cows, focusing on these priorities, there would be no sick cows, he said.

“Cow comfort is first, second and third. Remember that we are here because we love cows,” he said. “If a cow has a problem, that problem has a first and a last name,” as people are responsible for cow comfort.

In one study of 47 herds with similar genetics, all fed the same TMR, non-dietary factors accounted for 56 percent of the differences in milk yield between the herds. Feed pushups and availability of feed, as well as resting time, all impacted milk yield.

Feeding to refusal and having the feed in front of the cows earlier, when they naturally want to eat, will increase intake. Getting cows to lie down for one extra hour is also a goal. This will allow production of at least 1.4 more litres of milk from that extra bite.

The cow has three jobs – to stand to milk, to stand to eat or drink, and to lie down and chew cud. It’s the job of the dairy farmer to enable her to do these things well.

The 24-hour time budget of a cow requires she have 20 hours of each day to herself, with no more than four hours devoted to milking or other intrusive activities. Designing the cow environment to enable the cow to do these things is key.

“In order for her to perform at optimum, we have to take care of welfare and cow comfort first,” Jones said.

Facility design

“Facilities last a long time. Don’t cut corners here, trying to be cheap, and then realize we have to use extra labour to accomplish our mission in the dairy,” he said.

Ventilation is a major concern for cow comfort and health. Air quality, along with colder, fresh air, is needed to increase feed intakes. Barns should be kept open in temperatures above freezing. This fresh air will get cows “to eat one more bite,” he said. “You’d like it closed, but she’d like it open. Her best intake is at 40 degrees (5ºC).”

Social groups also impact cow comfort and behaviour, including feed and water intake. For cows in groups under 100, there is only one social hierarchy. But medium dairies, with pens of 120 or 160 cows, have two social groups.

Social groups become important when designing access to water. With more than 100 cows, there are two social groups, but typically only three waterers – one at each end and one in the middle.

This limits water intake for one social group, as one group will claim the middle waterer. Two waterers in the middle are needed, along with more space in the crossover, so both social groups will have plentiful access.

“When the pen size gets above 250, there is no social order anymore. Cows can’t remember enough names,” Jones said. “They end up having friends – three to six cows that look like them – but no social order.”

Facility design done right makes for comfortable cows and maximizes performance. Freestall barns fail for four common reasons, Jones said. Lack of cushion is a concern, and softer beds mean more time is spent there.

Neck rail placement is another issue. Lunge space makes a big difference. And a lack of ability to see around the environment – a need all cows have in order to feel safe when lying down – will stress the cows.

“The neck rail needs to be far enough forward that in the winter, when a cow stands in bed, she stands straight, and has all four feet in bed. That’s where the right place is,” he said.

A cow has to lunge and bob when getting up. Restricting this ability decreases the time they spend lying in the stall. Cows will position themselves in one of three positions – short, regular or long, with their head and legs in different positions – when lying down in the freestalls.

All are acceptable. Using loop dividers that the cows can’t go over will keep them square in bed and will keep organic bedding material clean, decreasing somatic cell counts.

Freestalls should be designed to be 48 inches wide, with a neck rail 48 inches above the curb. Sixty-six to 68 inches are needed from the back curb to the point of contact with the neck rail, and the same distance to the brisket board, which should be two inches above the back curb.

Bedding needs to be kept up to curb level, or the effective bedding length is actually shortened by eight to 10 inches, and the cows won’t use the stall. Fifteen or 16 feet is required curb to curb.

“Milk is the absence of stress. If we remove stress from our cows, we let them express their genetic potential. Food in the morning; get them to bed; make that bed comfortable.

It’s just that easy,” Jones said. “Buildings are tools. These are tools to let you implement your plans. We have to take care of the cows, and the facilities have to allow it.”  end mark

Tamara Scully, a freelance writer based in northwestern New Jersey, specializes in agricultural and food system topics.

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