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5 pitfalls that compromise cow comfort

Tamara Scully for Progressive Dairyman Published on 01 March 2018
Cow barn

“If we take care of our cows, they’ll take care of us,” Dr. Heather Dann, research scientist at the Miner Institute, said during the 2017 Cow Comfort Conference presented by the North Country Regional Ag Team of Cornell Cooperative Extension.

“When I invest in cow comfort, I am going to win.”

Cow comfort encompasses both the physical and the social. A cow’s natural behaviours of resting, rumination and feeding are physical needs that need to be managed. Socially, there are stressors that impact cow behaviour and also influence cow health and productivity.

Unfortunately, common management practices can impede normal physiological and social functioning. Dann identified some common concerns on dairy farms in the U.S. Northeast, along with practical means of improving cow comfort.

1. Maternity care

Researchers found that moving cows into individual pens “just in time” for birthing actually causes great disruption and has negative impacts on the calf.

When heifers are moved in this fashion, labour duration increases by about 30 minutes. Also, calves have less oxygen in their blood, don’t stand quickly and will wait longer before feeding for the second time.

Keeping the labour period low-stress means decreasing health concerns for heifer and calf. Offering seclusion, perhaps by the use of calving blinds, and calving in the close-up pen – instead of being moved to individual pens – gives cows the ability to isolate when desired and still be observed and accessible.

In one study, 40 percent of the cows opted to leave a group maternity pen on their own and travel down an alley to access a private area for birthing when offered the choice.

Cow comfort during labour is often overlooked, but there is a “critical window that we can’t ignore. When cows are given the choice, they’ll seclude themselves from the herd,” Dann said.

2. Dry cows

The economic benefits of investing in dry cow comfort are real, impacting milk production and herd health. Dry cows that are kept cool and comfortable produce more milk in their next lactation. And when dry cows are cool and comfortable, heifer and calf health improves.

Healthy dry cows will have an increased colostrum yield. Their calves will have increased birth and weaning weights, and show enhanced immunoglobulin absorption. “Metabolism is set so that these animals are going to grow better,” Dann said of the calves.

3. Overstocking

Cows have a time budget, and management decisions can severely impact the herd’s ability to rest, ruminate and feed. Anything that keeps cows from lying down is detrimental to their well-being. Cows prefer to rest for more than 12 hours per day and will sacrifice eating time to gain resting time.

For every hour of increased rest, a cow will produce almost 2 additional kilograms of milk. Other benefits include decreased cortisol response, increased levels of growth hormones, enhanced blood flow to mammary glands, plus increased longevity.

Overstocking is one factor that keeps cows out of the pen. Overstocking not only decreases pen availability, it can increase competition at the feedbunk, both of which will have a negative effect on lying time, as well as on milk quality and yield, and overall herd health.

Reductions in pregnancy rates, increased somatic cell counts, lower milkfat and an increase in incidents of milk fever and other disorders are found – along with lower milk yields – in overstocked barns, Dann said.

In herds with similar genetics, fed the same TMR, studies have found that milk production can vary widely. More than 50 percent of the variation has been found to be due to nondietary factors. Feed pushups, feeding to refusal and stalls per cow significantly influenced milk production.

Overstocking changes the cow feeding pattern, increases aggression and decreases rumination. Rumen pH is adversely affected by overstocking. Increasing feed availability and decreasing feedbunk density – as well as making sure all cows have free-choice access to fresh water – can reduce some of the negative stress responses seen with overstocking.

4. Social stressors

Grouping cows in comfortable social groups will benefit lying times. Commingling parity pens leads to less resting time for first-lactation cows, while the use of fresh pens can result in less ketosis and more milk production. In one study, these cows had rumination times of 360 minutes per day when commingled and 428 minutes per day when in a fresh pen.

“Rumination is a very quick way to monitor changes in management,” Dann said.

Primiparous cows take smaller bites, eat more slowly and ruminate less than multiparous cows. They also are socially submissive.

“A heifer will avoid stalls that are usually preferred by mature cows,” Dann said.

5. Lameness

In the U.S. Northeast, cows average five hours per day outside of their pens. Time spent outside of the pen is “a big driver of lameness,” and “lameness is a big issue in the Northeast,” Dann said. “As we move forward, this can’t continue to be acceptable on our farms.”

Soft bedding – enough of it to keep cows comfortable – is imperative to reduce knee and hock injuries and improve lameness rates.

Each additional kilogram of sawdust bedding can increase lying time by three minutes per day, while an additional kilogram of straw or 0.5-inch increase in sand depth can add 12 minutes per day.

Cows prefer more compressible bedding materials, with at least 4 to 8 inches in bed depth. Sand is slightly preferred over a foam mattress, but sand must be groomed regularly. Any bedding material must be kept dry. Cows won’t use sand stalls if there are depressions, resulting in “a big drop in lying times.”

A mattress with 2 to 4 inches of sand bedding can work. But lameness is increased with mattress use versus deep-bedded stalls, and the use of mattresses also causes more hock lesions and lessens lying time.

Lame cows prefer deep-bedded stalls over a mattress and spend more time standing in stalls with a mattress than deep-bedded ones. Lame cows require time to move from the stall into the parlour, which further reduces lying time. Keeping lame cows in pens close to the parlor is advantageous.

“We can’t treat them like a typical healthy cow,” Dann emphasized.

Future of comfort

Enriched environments, where cows are kept in stable social groups, are offered activities to engage their senses and are housed in environments which best support their normal behaviours, may become commonplace in the not-so-distant future.

Today, producers can adapt their management practices and their barns to better fit both the physical and social needs of the dairy herd.

Allowing cows to follow their natural time budgets results in both cow comfort and economic benefit. The bottom line, Dann said, is that “cows need time to be cows.”  end mark

PHOTO: Staff photo.

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

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