Grouping and facilities for special cows

by Sally Colby

Veterinarian Dr. Adrian Barragan, Penn State Extension, wants dairy farmers to understand that spending money on special cows is worth the investment. But which cows are special, and how should they be housed?

Barragan said every cow in the barn is special, but specific groups may perform better if managed differently. One such group is sick cows. Barragan explained that most animals are at a higher risk to become sick during the first 30 DIM, which can overlap with fresh cows.

“The sick cow, physiologically, is a different animal,” said Barragan. “They go through sickness or illness behaviors. They have decreased [feed] intake, especially if they’re transition cows. They’re depressed and spend more time lying down, so we have to provide comfortable lying surfaces. Those animals will also seek isolation.”

Barragan said isolation behavior is believed to be instinctual, and sick cows purposely isolate to prevent exposure to healthy herdmates.

The good herdsman and personnel should be able to spot illness quickly and take action to address the problem. “We need comfortable laying surfaces because they’re going to spend more time laying down,” said Barragan. “They’re going to have decreased intake, so we have to have the correct stocking density so there is adequate DMI. We also need feed and water availability 24/7.” The main drivers of stimulating sick cows to go to the feed bunk include the frequency of fresh feed delivery and feed pushups.

In some cases, sick cows are contagious, so the hospital pen should not be near the most susceptible animals in the herd, which include those in maternity pens, newborn calves or fresh cows. Injured cows are often non-ambulatory and can’t move to the feed bunk, so they require food and water around the clock. Injured and non-ambulatory cows need a comfortable laying surface. Many sick or injured cows require medication, so record keeping is critical to ensure proper milk or meat withdrawal time.

Animals scheduled for breeding are also special – they’re expressing heat behavior and may need to be moved for breeding. Barragan explained these cows have already gone through involution of the uterus (ready to host a new pregnancy) and become more active as they express signs of heat and readiness for breeding. The challenge with this group of animals is that their physiology indicates how to manage them. Barragan suggested watching for changes in behavior that indicate the start of heat, including willingness to stand to be mounted by other cows.

Barragan said there will almost always be cows in some stage of estrus. Some animals are close to cycling but not quite there, and will exhibit secondary signs of estrus such as sniffing genitalia, chin resting, trailing other cows and mucous discharge.

“The most important thing is that cows are more active,” said Barragan, further explaining estrus behavior. “They’re mounting, walking and running and need facilities to safely express these behaviors.”

Barragan suggested providing traction where conditions are slippery and muddy, making sure cows have open space without obstacles, monitoring for lameness, maintaining good hoof health, maintaining low stocking density and ensuring proper heat abatement systems are in place.

Another special group is cows with hoof health issues. Barragan recommended routine hoof maintenance for the entire herd, including hoof trimming once or twice a year. He suggested the most optimal time for those trims are at dry off and at 100 DIM. The hoof trimming area should be designed for low stress handling, and should be comfortable and safe for both cows and handlers. Barragan said the ideal hoof trimming restraint suspends the cow rather than putting her on her side.

Barragan said periparturient cows are more susceptible to lameness, and explained that the theory behind this is that the hormone surge that helps loosen the soft tissue and ligaments of the birth canal at calving might also be responsible for softening tendons and ligaments in the hoof, resulting in higher susceptibility to lameness.

One critical aspect of managing special cows is personnel training. Barragan encouraged dairy managers to foster a positive work environment in order to retain knowledgeable employees. “If you have a poor work environment, you’re going to have attitude problems,” he said. “No matter how knowledgeable your employees are they will fail to perform. Every time one employee leaves, it costs you money – not only in training, but in losses you experience while developing new personnel to understand protocols.”

Training new personnel for handling special cows should begin with an assessment of the employee’s experience and personality. Training should include both an oral and hands-on demonstration, then assessing knowledge and skills after the trainee completes a hands-on demonstration.

Dan McFarland, ag engineering educator at Penn State, said every cow throughout her lactation will end up in some group designated special needs. Every cow in the herd will fit in a working group from hoof trimming to those being pregnancy checked. Dairy farms designate a “milk held” group and treated cows group, and a quarantine group for cows entering or leaving the herd.

With any facility design, McFarland said the main considerations are cows’ needs, comfort and behavior, worker safety and labor for good care and management. Environmental protection, biosecurity and flexibility are also critical.

“The design process we’d like to see first is to develop some kind of management plan for special cows,” said McFarland. “Investigate and develop alternative designs, then evaluate those designs and options available and choose the best fit for your system and implement them.”

The management plan for special cows should include designation of management groups, the estimated number of cows in each group, nutritional needs and health needs. The housing system environment, even though it may be temporary, should include good ventilation, access to feed and water and stable footing. “Consider group movement,” said McFarland. “How will cows be moved to that space? And if they need to go to the milking area, take that into account.”

Handling and restraint needs may be different for each special group. McFarland said it’s a good idea to gather input from various sources including the herd owner, herd manager, veterinarian, nutritionist, Extension educators and building design specialist. “We’re all ignorant, but on different topics,” he said. “Each one has their own interest in the project and can offer their opinions on it.”

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