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Three experts debate resting time, stocking density, access to water and more

Progressive Dairy Editor Emma Ohirko Published on 14 September 2021
Cattle comfort

“When we first started talking about cow comfort, about 20 years ago, we were talking about stalls … originally it was meant as a cow lying down in a comfortable place,” said Dr. Don Niles, co-owner and manager of Dairy Dreams LLC.

Offering his concept of cow comfort, Niles said, “Now we’re trying to create the more ideal environment for the cow from every different aspect, not simply the surface she’s lying down on.”

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Niles was one of three panelists who spoke as part of Cainthus’ “Cow Comfort and Behavior – Measure, Benchmark and Profit” webinar presented on March 31. Niles discussed and debated various areas of interest in cow comfort alongside Dr. Joep Driessen, veterinarian and founder of CowSignals; and Dr. Tyler Bramble, portfolio growth manager at Cainthus.

The economics of cow comfort

The profitability of a cow comfort decision is often a limiting factor in a farm’s decision to work towards improved cow comfort, but all three experts argued cow comfort is worth the investment. “The better we take care of that animal, so the more feed and water and rest, and [the more we can reduce stress, the more] we’re going to get a response. We’re going to get more cows pregnant, we’re going to increase milk production, and we’re going to reduce lameness. All those things are ultimately going to come back as a positive economic response,” Bramble said.

Niles said economic benefit comes through recognizing natural cow behaviours and working to give cows the freedom to express these natural behaviours, either through reducing lockups, eliminating fly and pest problems, and other obstructions.

Improving cow comfort can also result in fewer instances of lameness in the herd. Driessen noted this may be possible through lowering stress on the cows due to stockmanship. He suggested striving towards stress-free stockmanship will improve farm economy and animal welfare, as well as decrease lameness. Farms with higher rates of lameness tend to see lower feed efficiency, Driessen explained, so by prioritizing cow comfort they can reduce lameness and increase feed efficiency to 1.5 litres of milk per kilogram of dry matter intake (DMI). As a result, he said, improving cow care and comfort will always pay.

Resting time

“One extra hour of resting is one extra litre of milk; that’s a direct return on investment,” Driessen said. He recommended all cows rest for a minimum of 12 hours a day, although 13 or 14 hours would be ideal for lactating cows. He also recommended calves rest for 18 hours daily and dry cows rest for 15 hours.

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To accommodate these resting times, milking routine may need to be modified or streamlined. Driessen said he has toured farms in North America with average milking times of 4.8 hours per day, which he said is far too long and could lead to lameness.

Bramble said one key to increasing resting time is to measure it. “If you’re not measuring it, then you’re guessing,” he said. Bramble works with dairies to shave six to 10 minutes off the time a cow spends out of the pen daily, and measuring a cow’s time with greater precision allows farms to better manage their herd’s resting time. If big variations in resting time are observed, producers can begin to diagnose and remedy the cause, whether it be stocking density, bedding change frequency, type of bedding or another factor.

Stocking density

Opinions from the experts began to diverge as they discussed stocking density. Driessen argued North American dairies, when compared with those in Europe, have seen stocking density increase to their own detriment, while Niles argued overcrowding is not as significant a problem as Driessen portrayed it to be.

“The need of one stall per cow, I think, is an excessively conservative requirement. What we need to be able to do is to allow the cow to observe her natural behaviours. That doesn’t mean every single cow will be lying down at the same time,” Niles said. He argued rather than adapting a facility to increase stall count, farms should focus on their role in ensuring herd and individual cow needs are met, particularly in farms where overcrowding may be a concern.

Rather than adhere to one stall per cow, Niles said more substantial improvements can be observed by drastically reducing lockup times.

With new technology, Niles said he has seen some farms all but eliminate lockups and see production go up as a result. “We only lock up 5 percent of our herd once a week for pregnancy checking; no other cows go through daily lockups. By doing that, both of our two dairies have [had milk production increase by] 20 litres a day, shockingly,” said Niles of the changes he has made on his own farms. He added, “I think their life was changed by what we did, and it really didn’t have anything to do with stocking density – it had to do with removing the obstacles we were putting in front of the cows.”

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Driessen countered Niles’ point, as he argued, “I think we should really have one feeding base per cow and one resting place per cow to reach five lactations.” If lowering the cow-to-stall ratio is not an option, he noted, at a minimum dry cows and cows in the first three weeks after freshening should be given plenty of space to compensate for the “less-than-perfect” housing they may face later.

Access to water

Water is often viewed as the most important nutrient for dairy cows. Because of water’s vital role in dairy production, understanding and providing proper access to water for cows is crucial. However, Bramble noted it can be difficult for farms to gauge how well they are performing in terms of water access, as limited commercial methods exist to measure water intake. As more technologies become available, such as monitors that work to measure time at the water trough, farms will gain greater understanding of their herd’s water and water access needs.

Beyond the nutritional value of water to cows, Driessen said water may help meet cow cooling needs during warmer months. Speaking from his experience working on dairies in the Middle East, Driessen said he has observed many farms implement – with success – drinking water cooling systems to cool cows off. When the water was cooled from 45ºC to 17ºC, cows’ milk production increased by several litres throughout the summer. Although there is a cost associated with cooling drinking water, Driessen explained, it would only be necessary for a few weeks a year and therefore may be a good solution to cow cooling even in North America.

Lighting

Lighting can be a somewhat controversial topic, as some farms look to cut costs by decreasing lighting needs, but both Driessen and Niles agreed having adequate barn lighting is a key component to cow comfort.

After installing a positive-negative air flow system in his own freestall barn, Niles lost some natural light that was entering his barn, as the sidewalls had to be closed. Consequently, Niles said they have become dependent on artificial light in the facility, which he noted has made it lighter than ever before, using high-lumen light fixtures and has improved cow comfort. Niles employs an 18-hour lighting period, using minimal light in the evenings so employees can still work safely in the barn. He and Driessen both agreed a period of darkness is also needed to allow cows to reset their circadian rhythm.  end mark

PHOTO: Photo by Mike Dixon.

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