Some of the free-stalls at a 500-cow dairy in upstate New York were in need of repair. Whether it involved loops falling down or loops hanging at an angle, the stalls just couldn’t be used. It became a bigger and bigger problem — especially considering the cows were overcrowded to begin with — and herd nutritionist Corwin Holtz kept encouraging the owners to do something about it.
Finally, 14 stalls in the high-production group pen were repaired and made useable again. Changes were made, as well, in the stall design in both the high-production and lower-production groups. The style of loops was OK, but the way they were mounted to the channel iron in front tended to impair a cow’s forward lunge. The channel iron was dropped lower to open up more frontal space.
“We improved general cow comfort significantly,” Holtz says.
No one actually tracked the cows’ lying time with data loggers, but it did appear that the cows were lying down more than before. Within a couple of months of the improvements, milk production increased by about 7 pounds per cow per day, on average. More and more farms are finding that cow comfort, resting behavior and milk production are intrinsically linked. Twelve to 14 hours per day is now the industry standard for resting time. If cows aren’t getting those 12 to 14 hours, milk production can suffer.
We can now quantify it
This is pretty intuitive. After all, shouldn’t cows either be lying down, eating, drinking or being milked? What else is new?
And who has time to actually measure how much time they are lying down?
Until recently, no one set a target of 12 to 14 hours of lying time per day. And, no one really quantified what it meant in terms of reduced dry matter intake or milk production if that goal wasn’t met. Now, we have those numbers.
As far as measuring tools, we have those, as well.
Resting and feeding behavior are linked
Cows are naturally aggressive when it comes to eating. But even that can be tempered by not having enough resting time. Researchers have found that two things, in particular, stimulate feeding behavior in cows: (1) delivery of fresh feed and (2) feed push-up. Yet, in a research experiment conducted by Rick Grant, president of the W.H. Miner Agricultural Research Institute in Chazy, N.Y., increased feeding frequency improved dry matter intake only if it did not negatively affect lying behavior.
“Cows will sacrifice feeding in an effort to recoup lost resting time,” Grant points out.
In the mid-1980s, Dutch researcher Jos Metz set up an experiment in which the cows’ access to resting stalls or the feed manger was restricted. What he found was that cows attempted to maintain a fixed amount of lying time, and their well-being was impaired when lying time was restricted for several hours daily.
Other studies have come to similar conclusions. A review of several published studies shows that when cows are deprived of rest for two and four hours per day, they will compensate with more resting time and less eating time when the restrictions are removed.
Summarizing the data from about five published research papers, Grant says that cows will sacrifice approximately one minute of eating time for every 3.5 minutes of lost rest.
And, each additional hour of resting time is associated with 2 to 3.5 more pounds of milk per cow per day, he adds.
Based on actual observations of cow behavior, Grant has developed the following time budget for animals in freestall housing:
Eating – 3 to 5 hours per day
Lying down/resting – 12 to14 hours per day
Standing/walking in alley – 2 to 3 hours per day
Drinking – 30 minutes per day
Practically speaking, no one is going to spend the time measuring each of these parameters, although it certainly is possible to measure resting time with the new technology available. (See the “Easy to measure” discussion below.)
Cows will pretty much self-regulate and stay within those time parameters if they are allowed to; it’s as though they have an inner clock.
Grant suggests simply observing how much time the cows are spending outside the pen each day as they walk to or from the milking parlor, palpation rail or other common sites shared by all of the cows on the farm.
“If the cows are outside the pens for 3.5 hours a day or less, they are in good shape,” Grant says. But that assumes once the cows return to the pen, they have ready access to comfortable stalls and are not overcrowded.
If stall or overcrowding issues do exist, it may be advisable to take a closer look.
Easy to measure
Data loggers make it possible to actually measure resting behavor. These are inexpensive tools — about the size of a double AA battery — that can be placed on the back leg of a cow to record if the cow is standing or lying down over a certain period of time.
“The good news is that the data loggers provide producers with a very powerful assessment tool that can be used to trouble-shoot cow comfort issues on their farms,” say University of British Columbia researchers Dan Weary and Nina Von Keyserlingk. “Our analysis shows that reliable estimates of farm averages can be generated by following 30 cows per farm for just two or three days.”
“Dairy cows have a strong motivation to rest,” points out Kathy Lee, dairy educator with Michigan State University Extension. “Their natural behavior is to meet their requirement for resting, which may mean giving up some time for eating. Studies also have indicated that cows exhibit stress responses when they cannot meet their resting requirement."