2. Overstocking can cause an illusion of good stall comfort. Cows will use virtually any stall if they are forced to do so, but that doesn’t mean they enjoy it. University of British Columbia (UBC) research showed that standing versus lying time is longer in uncomfortable stalls. In other words, cows will climb right in, lie down and stay down in comfortable stalls, but will stand longer if they are uncomfortable. Another sign of discomfort is a high incidence of cows “perching” with two feet in a stall – whether occupied or unoccupied by another cow. Krawczel says researchers at the UBC found that cows would use less-preferred stalls more frequently when preferred stalls were blocked, indicating that it was a “forced” choice. For this reason, Hill feels that the Stall Use Index (SUI) provides a better assessment of comfort in overcrowded situations than either the Cow Comfort (CCI) or Stall Standing Indices (SSI) because SUI acccounts for all cows in the pen that are not eating and not just those occupying a stall.
3. Bedding and stall maintenance matter. Excellent bedding and stall maintenance can compensate for many other imperfections, including small stalls. Hill says a deep, clean, inviting surface will encourage cows to readily lie down. The type of bedding matters, too. UBC research found a 23.8 percent incidence of hock lesions when sand bedding was used, compared to 69.7 percent with sawdust and 91.7 percent with mattresses. Numerous mastitis studies also have shown a lower incidence of environmental mastitis with sand bedding compared to organic materials. Hill says sand usually is less expensive and more available than other types of bedding. He adds that he has seen farms develop a number of creative ways to keep sand out of the mechanics of manure removal equipment, which is often a factor that creates reluctance to use sand. “I tell people, you can break your manure equipment, or you can break your cows,” advises Hill. “A machine can’t feel pain and discomfort, but the cows definitely can.”
4. Feeding behavior is affected, too. Cows have a tremendous propensity to eat, and overstocking at the feedbunk can drive cows to the point of physical injury. Research has shown that cows will willingly exert more than 500 pounds of pressure against the feed barrier while eating. Tissue damage occurs at 225 pounds of pressure, meaning that cows can permanently wear the scars of overcrowding at the bunk. “When you walk onto a farm and see cows with massive calluses on their necks, it is more likely to be a feed bunk push-up or design problem than a stall problem,” says Hill.