Read the Progressive Dairy Canada digital edition

Functional conformation yields better cow comfort, welfare

Jeanette Van der Linden Published on 04 April 2014
Holstein cow

“Animal welfare” and “cow comfort” have become popular buzz words around the industry. In some instances, dairy producers have been depicted as people who care more about their bottom line than the animal welfare and cow comfort it takes to properly care for and manage animals.

If you are a dairy producer, or have ever met a dairy producer, you will know this is not the case. In fact, it is completely opposite to the attention to detail and care producers provide in properly managing their herds.

In fact, milk producers know that the comfort and safety of the animals they care for have a great deal to do with their longevity and ability to produce milk efficiently – which also happens to be directly related to their bottom line.



Many producers are expanding their facilities or renovating existing spaces to allow for ample space and proper flooring for free mobility, comfortable and appropriately sized stalls for resting, better access to feedbunk space for proper nutrition, and improved lighting and air quality for health and safety.

There are many things producers can change about a cow’s environment to improve her overall well-being.

Promoting the health, safety, comfort and longevity of animals in your herd is not just about giving them a proper “feng shui” environment.

It is also extremely important that you use breed improvement tools to ensure the cow is built to last. A majority (68 percent) of milk producers in Canada use the classification program to help make informed decisions regarding cow comfort, animal welfare and, in return, their bottom line.

By classifying a dairy cow, producers are able to identify the functional conformation required to withstand the demands of milk production.

The goal of any producer should be to “build” a cow that can thrive in her environment and then mate her selectively to improve the next generation of daughters.

A functionally correct and balanced cow (as defined as the true-type cow in Canada) not only is comfortable in her environment but is also less susceptible to disease, breakdown and can, in turn, produce more milk.

Modern dairy cows are expected to walk and stand for most of the day, and that is not feasible without a strong and resilient set of feet and legs. A profitable and functional cow must be able to walk freely, lie down and get back up with relative ease.


Classifiers assess the quality of a cow’s feet and legs in relation to their mobility, ability to withstand injury and disease, and have proper biomechanical function.

The legs should be widely placed, with intermediate curvature from the side and straight when viewed from behind. The foot should have a hoof with moderate slope (foot angle) and sufficient depth of heel.

The genetic correlation between feet and legs and longevity is strong at 0.38. Cows with solid feet and legs have reduced injury and minimized stress and pressure build-up.

A cow with straight rear legs rear view will be more comfortable bearing weight on the outside of her hooves and provide a strong foundation to support more than 700 kilograms of bodyweight.

With all that weight being supported by four strong and resilient legs, it’s important the cow has sufficient capacity in order to sustain proper function of her internal organs.

A cow’s heart and lungs can be considered her engine; if there isn’t enough room for them to work, then she will never reach her full potential.

Having angularity (extremely open ribs that have spring and angle to the rear) in addition to sufficient chest width, provide the capacity required to eat a large amount of high-quality feedstuffs and, in return, produce more milk. Angularity and milk production are genetically correlated at 34 percent.

The Holstein cow is a milk machine; with a quality mammary system, she can produce high volumes of milk and be less susceptible to udder injury, breakdown and disease.


A desirable mammary system is soft, high and wide at the rear attachment and anchored strongly to the abdomen with proper teat placement.

A mammary system possessing these qualities can improve longevity (genetic correlation of 45 percent) and health and fertility (13 percent), which translates into fewer health costs and minimizes animal losses.

The most important udder characteristic is a solid fore udder attachment. This single trait is related genetically to herd life (longevity) by 37 percent. An intermediate udder is desired to keep the udder free from contamination and injury.

Udder depth, as measured from the hock up to the lowest point of the udder, has a genetic correlation of 28 percent and 40 percent with SCS and herd life, respectively.

Rear attachment width has a correlation of 53 percent and 36 percent with durability and milk yield. A high and wide rear udder is more capacious to maximize yield without the negative effects of a deep udder which compromises udder health.

A cow needs to reproduce in order to produce. A weak loin lowers and pushes the reproductive tract down, which could cause fertility and calving problems.

A moderate rump angle (slope from hook to pin) is 21 percent genetically correlated to calving ability, meaning easier calving and proper fluid drainage for a healthy recovery after calving.

This ultimately means she will incur fewer problems during and after birth, start milking sooner and be healthier in the long run. This is a lifetime reproductive insurance policy for the producer because problems at first calving are expensive and affect her health and efficiency throughout her lifetime.

Today’s modern dairy cow has a lot of demand on her to produce significantly more milk now than she could have produced a decade ago.

This was made possible by genetic selection for milk yield in combination with identifying and selectively mating for conformation traits which support functionality and, therefore, profitability. A cow that is balanced, solid and functional will live a longer life with optimal health and welfare.

Maximized results are seen when genetic selection is conducted in combination with informed nutrition and production management decisions, regular health routine and proper hoof care.

The more consideration producers give to cow comfort and animal well-being – the bigger return they will realize on their investment. Not only will their bulk tank be fuller, but their cows will live longer and have fewer problems.  PD

The Holstein cow is a milk machine; with a quality mammary system, she can produce high volumes of milk and be less susceptible to udder injury, breakdown and disease. Photo by PD staff.

Jeanette Van der Linden
Jeanette Van der Linden
Extension and Education Specialist – Classification and Field Services
Holstein Canada