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Let cows be cows

Brandt Kreuscher for Progressive Dairyman Published on 28 September 2018
Every minute of the cow’s day matters, which is why it is critical for cows to spend their time resting, eating, drinking and milking with as little human interference as possible.

On a typical day, how often do cows interact with people on your dairy?

It’s common for a dairy team to mingle with a herd at least two or three times for milking, again if it’s a herd health day, again for breeding, again if pen shifts are on the schedule and probably again if any additional management interventions are needed.

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Add in feeding activities, and it’s easy to see how people inadvertently, but frequently, interfere with a cow’s or group’s daily routine.

For animals that crave a stable schedule, these interruptions can present a challenge, especially if the activities infringe on lying time and the opportunity for cows to simply be cows.

Of course, many interactions are inevitable and necessary, but data show that reducing those interactions when possible increases rumination time and consistency.

In other words, the more you can leave cows alone, the better – for rumination time and cow health and performance.

If you believe that your team’s daily activities don’t make a difference, think again. This rumination monitoring table (Table 1) shows how rumination increases when human interaction decreases.

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Rumination averages during the week vs. weekends

This 500-cow dairy found its highest rumination times occurred on weekends or days with minimal management team activity (in purple).

In addition, the herd’s rumination was extremely consistent for each of these dates, while lower rumination levels and wider fluctuations occurred during the week.

This information can be extrapolated as additional justification for the need to minimize lockup time and handling activities across the board.

Further, reducing human activities reduces rumination variability, which is key to enhancing individual cow, group and herd productivity.

Time budgets

It’s been shown time and again cows spend a percentage of their day on specific behaviours. For example, according to University of Wisconsin veterinarian Nigel Cook, certain components of the cow’s day are fixed and non-negotiable.

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He adds, “It is commonly suggested cows make more milk when they are lying down as blood flow through the external pudic artery increases by around 24 to 28 percent when lying compared to standing.

And failure to achieve adequate rest has negative impacts on lameness, cortisol response and growth hormone concentrations, suggesting there is a significant stress response.”

University of Wisconsin research shows:

  • The TMR-fed, freestall-housed dairy cow eats for an average of 4.4 hours per day (range 1.4 to 8.1). Pasture cows average around eight to nine hours per day eating.

  • Cows spend an average of 0.4 hour per day at or around a waterer.

  • In herds milking two or three times a day, the average cow spent 2.6 hours out of the pen milking, with a wide range from 0.9 to 5.7 hours per day.

  • Time in the pen is spent performing three activities – lying down, standing in an alley and standing in a stall.

o The average freestall cow spends 2.4 hours per day standing in an alley socializing, moving between the feedbunk and stalls, and returning from the parlour.

o Once in the stall, the average cow spends 2.9 hours per day standing in the stall (range 0.3 to 13).

o 11.3 hours per day lying in the stall (range 2.8 to 17.6) on average.

Shortchanging cows in these areas also often results in negative productivity consequences, especially when it comes to cow lying time.

New data presented at the American Dairy Science Association annual meeting this summer shows cows deprived of lying time decreased milk production by about 2 litres of milk per day.

Transition cow implications

Disruptions to animal routines can be seen in rumination patterns and cow responses. When a 600-cow California dairy analyzed its animal monitoring data, it noted daily activities were preventing cows from meeting their optimal time budgets.

The farm altered its fresh cow program to focus on those animals only needing attention rather than working with the entire group each day.

This change reduced time away from feed and stalls for fresh cows. Feed intake increased, plus the farm reported lower treatment rates and increased cow health and well-being.

Because of these management adaptions and reduced interventions, rumination time increased, as did consistency of rumination. Cows were permitted to express their desired behaviour rather than be forced into unpredictable or disruptive routines.

Trevor DeVries, associate professor and Canada Research Chair in Dairy Cattle Behaviour and Welfare at the University of Guelph, noted at the 2017 Western Dairy Management Conference that one of the behavioural challenges dairy cows face at calving is the sudden increase in time devoted to milking and being outside of their pen.

“The more time cows are required to be away from their pen and resources (feed, water, rest), the more they are forced to reduce the amount of time they devote to things like resting or eating, with consequences,” he explained.

Field studies show cows are often outside of their pens for four hours per day or more. A positive association between the prevalence of lameness in high-producing pens and greater time spent outside the pen has been reported as well.

Also, it’s been demonstrated mature cows and first-lactation heifers gained two and four hours per day of rest, and 2.3 and 3.6 kilograms of milk per day, when they were outside the pen for only three hours per day versus six hours per day.

Additive effect

When you put these factors together, it becomes clear. Obviously, your team must spend time with cows each day to accomplish the tasks needed to manage the herd. But you must be mindful of how often these activities take place and the time needed to complete them – the less distracting, the better for all.

Listen to what your cows tell you. Rumination performance will speak to what cows cannot say and let you know when it’s time to simplify or reassess routines for optimal cow well-being and productivity.  end mark

PHOTO: Every minute of the cow’s day matters, which is why it is critical for cows to spend their time resting, eating, drinking and milking with as little human interference as possible. Photo by Mike Dixon.

References omitted but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

Brandt Kreuscher is the Dairy Business Manager for Allflex USA and SCR Dairy. Email Brandt Kreuscher.

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