Access to feed and water for cow comfort

by Sonja Heyck-Merlin

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “comfort” is defined as a state of physical ease and freedom from pain or constraint. “Put the word cow in front of that and this is what we’re trying to achieve when it comes to cow comfort,” said Dan McFarland, an ag engineer with Penn State Extension.

Access to water and feed was one component of cow comfort McFarland discussed in his presentation, “Cow Comfort: Can It Be Improved in Your Barn?” It was one webinar in a dairy education series from University of Vermont Extension and Cornell Cooperative Extension Northwest Crops and Soils Program.

McFarland quoted Robert Graves, Ph.D. and Professor Emeritus at Penn State: “Cows and feed should be available to each other at least 21 hours per day.” It’s not only important to provide high-quality feed, but that feed is readily accessible. The goal, according to McFarland, is to encourage and allow proper dry matter intake for each cow and provide a comfortable feeding experience.

“It’s important to understand typical cow behavior,” McFarland said. “Ideally, cows eat 12 meals per day, spend 20 or more minutes per meal, eating three to seven hours per day. Producers should allow for the opportunity for smaller meals more frequently.”

To accomplish this, it’s critical the feed area is designed correctly. According to McFarland, each large-frame cow needs 27 to 30 inches of feed space per cow if they’re eating all at once. Feeding areas with as little as 18 inches of feeding space per cow can work well as long as feed is available and within reach at all times and cows are away from the pen no longer than three hours per day.

Dry cows and post-fresh cows need the full 27 to 30 inches at all times. Feed space in a tie-stall barn typically isn’t a problem, but keeping enough feed available and within reach can be a challenge, so regular feed delivery and push back is needed.

McFarland emphasized the importance of the natural head-down feeding position. Feed table height should be two to six inches above the surface the cow is standing on. “In this position they produce more saliva,” he said. “Studies indicate that they produce 17% more saliva than they would in an elevated bunk.” Saliva production is important because it provides a means to buffer the rumen.

Another recommendation is to deliver feed at least twice per day in free-stall barns, especially in the summer when heat can have a dramatic impact on some rations. In tie-stall barns, it may be necessary to feed more than twice a day because the amount delivered per feeding is less than in free-stall systems.

Regardless of barn type, producers should target for 3% refusal. The feed must also be within    reach. “It only takes 20 or 30 minutes for cows eating a meal to push it far enough away so it’s no longer convenient to reach for the cows that come up to the bunk next,” McFarland said.

Since dairy cows become motivated to eat when fresh feed is provided, the timing of pushing in feed is important. “Focus on when feed gets pushed in, not how often,” he said.

Equally important to feed access is water access. A mixture of water and feed keeps the rumen healthy. Cows demand more water post-eating and post-milking. It takes four to five pounds of water to produce one pound of milk, with drinking water satisfying 80% – 90% of total water requirement. The remainder of the water comes from the ration.

Water should be conveniently located and, McFarland said, ideally “cows should be within 50 feet of drinking water.” Cows should also be able to draw good quality water easily from a source that is able to keep up with peak demand since a cow can drink up to five gallons per minute. Also, the water vessel should be easy to clean.

In a loose housing system, McFarland suggested a minimum of two drinking water units per group that allows for 15% to 20% of the group to drink at the same time. Each cow should have 3.5 to four inches of accessible trough. “These numbers are really based on milking performance,” McFarland said. “As cows are exiting from the parlor, that’s when they want to drink, and you want to provide the best possible access for that group.”

Crossovers in a free-stall – the areas where cows pass to move from feeding to resting areas – are ideal locations for water stations. McFarland’s research of barns with three water stations showed that 30% to 35% of total water consumption comes from the station closest to the milking parlor, 40% to 50% from the middle station and the remainder from the far end. This showed that crossovers play a critical role in providing equal access to water for every cow.

Tie-stall barns often share a water bowl between a pair of cows. “Often the structure and design of tie-stall barns makes it difficult for cows to get into the water bowl and drink. You see a lot of splashing, licking and wasting water,” McFarland said. After observing this behavior for many years, McFarland began measuring the distance from muzzle to poll of cows and how it compared to the structure surrounding the water bowl.

“What I’ve found is that if you can get 20 to 22 inches clear between the structure and the water bowl, that cow will have good access to water,” McFarland said. “With that spacing, the cow is able to get her head into the bowl and use it more correctly than if she’s coming into it from an angle.” For many producers, accomplishing this is as simple as lowering the water bowls.

Another recommendation for improving water access in tie-stall barns is to provide one water bowl per cow. This can prevent submissive cows from having a dominant neighbor monopolize the water.

While it can seem daunting to make these changes, McFarland encouraged producers to take small steps. “There are so many things to take care of on a dairy farm that you can’t do everything at once. Try focusing on one particular area.”

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