I was recently sitting in a meeting with a technical services veterinarian and one of our dairy clients, doing an economic analysis for his farm. We were analyzing his disease incidence data and what the economic impact would be of reducing the incidence of various diseases. The dairy farmer started to discuss some of the cows he had that were milking exceptionally well versus the ones that did not milk that well on this month’s test. When we discussed why those cows milked well, we determined they were not stressed — or put another way, they were happy. Cows that are not stressed eat well, rest well, milk well, and do not get sick.

The next question would logically be “what makes cows stressed on my farm?”

Watching your cows is the best way to determine this, and having an outside pair of eyes can be even more beneficial. One tool I am starting to use on our dairy farms now is a time-lapse camera installed in the barn. Watching the cows all day with a video that is just several minutes long can be very revealing. Often, we just see the result of stress and we do not get the opportunity to actually see it happening.

What are some common causes of stress we might see on a dairy farm that could make your cows unhappy and poor performers?

Cow comfort (or lack thereof)
I think this is probably the number one cause of stress on many dairy farms. For many years, we have undervalued cow comfort and this is likely still happening today when we look at lameness rates on dairy farms. Time-lapse videos can show cows laying abnormally in stalls or standing in stalls — sometimes for hours on end! The most important part of the cow is likely not her udder, rumen or uterus but, in fact, her feet and legs. Dairy farms with cow-comfort issues usually suffer in multiple production areas, such as poorer reproduction, higher cull rates, lower production, more disease, and higher somatic cell counts or clinical mastitis. Ask your veterinarian to critically evaluate the comfort of your facilities and critically evaluate the lameness on your farm. Calculate the percent of your hoof trims that are for lame cows versus routine cows, then look at how many that correlates to for the year. Would we tolerate such a high incidence rate for other diseases? Cow comfort is often the root cause of lameness on dairy farms.

Another area of cow comfort is ventilation and air quality. Assess your cow cooling and ventilation rate on all areas of your dairy before spring and summer heat stress occurs.

Access to feed and water
Time-lapse video of cows around a water trough after being released from the headlocks or coming out of the parlor is interesting to watch! It is stressful to be thirsty and get beaten away from the trough by a boss cow because there is not enough water space. Evaluate where your water troughs are located, cleanliness and the linear foot of water space availability. If you video your cows, see if one water trough is avoided, and then figure out why.

Is fresh feed available to your cows at all times? Is there fresh feed when they leave the parlor? Is the feeding schedule correct so that cows return to fresh feed or do they have to wait for the feeder after returning to their pens? Do not assume it happens! A video can help us determine if the process is actually taking place correctly.

Most of us who live in the country cannot imagine being crowded in an urban location. We think that traffic, crowds of people, noise and pollution would be a stressful life! Our cows do not like to be crowded either. Not enough beds and not enough space at the feed bunk create stress. Keeping stocking density to the appropriate level for your pen size and bunk space will reduce stress and keep cows happier!

Removing the obstacles that create stress in our cows is a positive step towards improved productivity, less disease, and an overall happier cow. Cows that are happy reward their owners with an abundance of quality, wholesome milk. Ask your veterinarian what obstacles you can remove to create a happier cow on your farm.

Fred Gingrich is a practicing veterinarian and owner of Country Roads Veterinary Services, Inc., in Ashland, Ohio.