LIVERPOOL, NY — It may seem like your herd loves their feed more than anything, but according to Heather Dann, Ph.D, they’d rather rest than eat.
A research scientist with William H. Miner Agricultural Research Institute in Chazy, NY, Dann said when overcrowded cows face the choice of eating or lying down, they’ll choose lying down.
She recently presented “Managing the Environment to Maximize Cow Comfort” at the Cow Comfort Conference, hosted by Cornell University Cooperative Extension North Country Regional Ag Team.
Cow comfort may seem a topic of little importance; however, Dann shared that “with continuing volatility in feed and milk prices, we need to sharpen our focus on the consistent economic benefits of improved cow comfort,” Dann said. “Modest investments in housing, or changes in cow management routines, can pay large dividends in greater cow health and performance.”
She showed a slide that indicated a cow’s physical and social environment leads to proper resting, ruminating and feeding. Those result in the animal’s productivity, health and wellbeing.
Dann said cows should spend about 10 to 14 hours a day lying down, 3 to 5 eating, half an hour drinking, 7 to 10 hours ruminating (standing or lying), 2 to 3 hours socializing and 2.5 to 3.5 hours milking outside of the pen.
Common ways to disturb that time budget include “excessive time outside the pen, uncomfortable stalls, inadequate feed availability, overcrowding, excessive competition, inadequate heat stress abatement, mixing of primi- and multiparous cows, short pen stays during transition, and more than an hour a day in headlocks for fresh cows,” Dunn said.
Deviating outside of these ideals doesn’t cost producers a lot.
“How much does it cost to ensure feed availability 24/7?” Dann said. “To keep time outside the pen less than one hour a day? To lock cows in headlocks less than one hour a day? To remove some cows from a pen to reduce overcrowding? To group first-calf heifers separately from older cows? To provide heat stress abatement? To be gentle, calm and considerate?”
Dann said resting is the cow’s most valued behavior since it offers the dairyman many benefits, including increased milk production of 3.7 lbs. per hour and increased feeding and rumination time.
“Decreased standing minimizes risk of sole hemorrhages and lameness,” Dann said.
Cows with adequate resting time also experience decreased cortisol response, increased growth hormone, and more blood flow to mammary gland and gravid uterine horn. In addition, they live longer.
For these reasons, Dann views lying time as an opportunity for farms to seize. To more accurately estimate their herd’s lying time, some farmers use cow trackers, devices secured in pouches on the cow’s leg that monitor lying and standing time.
“Lameness is a major concern on Northeast farms,” Dann said. “Consumers are aware of how much lameness we have. It’s not acceptable that half the farms in the Northeast have half their cows moderately to severely lame.”
In addition to the ethics and reputation involved with animal welfare, lame animals hurt producer’s profits in vet bills and the animals’ longevity.
“Greater lameness prevalence is most highly associated with greater time outside the pen,” Dann said.
She noted in 40 Northeastern dairy herds, the average time outside the pen was 4.8 hours daily, far above the ideal 2.5 to 3.5. On some farms, the time outside the pen was as high as 7.7 hours.
Managing the environment makes a big difference in yield. Dann noted a study in which 47 herds with similar genetics were fed the same rations. Their milk varied from 45 to 74 lbs daily.
“Non-dietary factors accounted for 56 percent of variation in milk yield,” Dann said.
Mixing younger and older stock may cause problems.
“Heifers are submissive and won’t eat if they’re worried about the cow behind them,” Dann said. “Heifers usually avoid stalls the dominant cows prefer.”
Ideal stalls are usually near food and are in good condition.
Dann attributed stock density as key to ideal milk production.
“As cows have more space, they do well, but under stocking is no key for success,” Dann said.
She added the ideal stocking density should use 80 percent of the bunk space, so each animal has 30 inches available at all times. For a four-row barn, she advises producers to avoid exceeding 115 to 120 percent of stalls’ capacity. For mixed heifer and older cow herds and also for 6-row barns, keep it at 100 percent capacity.
Using sufficient bedding also helps ensure cow comfort as it keeps cows more comfortable when lying and rising, and reduces hock and knee abrasions and swelling. The type of bedding used can affect lying time, too. Cows tend to lie three additional minutes per day for each additional two pounds of sawdust shavings, Dann said. The time goes up to 12 minutes for an equal weight of straw or sand.
Deep bedding helps prevent lameness more than mattresses. Dann cited three studies indicating that lameness is higher for mattresses (24 to 33 percent) versus deep bedding (11 to 22 percent).
“When we increase the amount of bedding, cows will lie down more,” Dann said.
Keeping stalls clean and dry also helps encourage cows to get enough lying time.
Based upon case studies, cows with softer, larger beds give an average of 3 to 14 more pounds of milk daily, experience lower turnover rate, reduced somatic cell count, and lower risk of lameness.
Dann said the return on investment for stall renovation takes an average of 1.9 years.
Cow comfort tends to focus on lactating cows, but providing cow comfort to dry cows improves milk production once they’re milking again.
“I think it’s just as important, if not more important, for dry cows,” Dann said.
She said cow comfort measures such as cooling cows during the dry period improves immune function, increases colostrum yield, increases birth weight and weaning weight of offspring and other benefits.
Dann said the calving pen also affects the wellbeing of cow and newborn calf. She found that calving cows prefer a quiet, secluded area, not a high-traffic place where noise and bustle disturb them.
Since building pens with calving cows in mind may not fit every farm’s budget, using plywood or landscaping fabric to form walls can prove beneficial to farms.
Usually associated with zoo animals, “environmental enrichment” when applied to a dairy can help herds live more comfortably. The categories of environmental enrichment include allowing cows the ability to socialize, exercise, live in comfortable housing, eat nutritious food, and enjoy sensory stimulation, such as grooming.
In general, Dann said, “Cows need time to be cows: practice natural behaviors.”