Farm Horizons, April 2015
How happy are your cows?
By Starrla Cray
When cows are happy, it shows.
“There really are consistent economic benefits of improving cow comfort,” said Rick Grant, president of the W.H. Miner Agricultural Research Institute. “Relatively modest investments can pay surprisingly large dividends.”
A cow’s needs are pretty straightforward a soft spot to rest, temperatures that aren’t too hot, plenty of food, and clean water and falling short any of these can have big consequences.
Relaxation, for instance, is critical, as cows need 12 to 14 hours of resting time per day.
“When cows are given the choice between eating and resting, even a hungry cow will choose to make up lost resting time,” Grant said. “Don’t make her choose.”
Grant presented several aspects of cow comfort economics at the Feb. 16 Carver County Dairy Expo in Norwood Young America. (He spoke via live webinar, because all flights from his home in Chazy, NY were grounded due to winter storms.)
A cow’s resting environment can have notable impacts on milk production, according to Grant. If a cow can’t find an empty stall to lie in, or if the stall is uncomfortable, the cow tends to produce less milk.
Stressed-out cows tend to have an increased cortisol response, reduced growth hormone, less blood flow to the mammary gland and gravid uterine horn, reduced feeding time, reduced rumination, increased standing, and a predisposition to sole hemorrhages and lameness.
In five case studies, farmers who implemented softer beds and larger stalls had an average payback on their investment of 1.9 years. Benefits included less lameness, lower somatic cell count, lower turnover rates, and more milk production.
Each farm is different, and Grant said the amount of benefit an individual sees depends on the baseline. If an environment was good to begin with, results may not be as dramatic.
Overcrowding can be another major stressor in cows’ lives, affecting milk quantity and quality (milk fat percentage). Cows also tend to be more aggressive, have more health disorders, and become pregnant less often.
According to Grant, the optimal stocking density for lactating cows is 100 percent of stalls in a six-row barn; in a four-row barn, farmers shouldn’t exceed 115-120 percent of stalls. In short, as long as cows have access to feed, water, and stalls whenever they want them, the stocking density is adequate.
Subordinate cows are most affected by overcrowding, and extra care should be taken when mixing older cows with heifers.
“Heifers need their space,” Grant said. “They eat slower; they take smaller bites.”
Heifers also tend to avoid stalls previously occupied by older, dominant cows.
When heifers are competing with mature dairy cows, studies have found that their dry matter intake is reduced by 10 percent, resting is reduced by 20 percent, and milk is reduced by 9 percent.
Rumination is also impacted, and heifers who are in a separate pen tend to ruminate several more minutes per day.
“Bottom line is, don’t overcrowd if you co-mingle,” Grant said.
Human-cow interaction is also foundational to cow comfort, and cows are more productive and healthy with gentle, calm handling and vocalizations. (One study showed a 13-percent increase in milk with gentle vs. adverse handling.)
“It doesn’t cost a dime to be in a good mood,” Grant said, adding that the ideal personality type (associated with the highest milk yield) is a “confident introvert.”
“Listen to your cows and focus on natural behaviors,” he added. “If you do that, you can’t go too far wrong.”