Cow Comfort: Back to the basics

When designing housing systems, it is essential for producers to keep the following key principles in mind concerning cow comfort:

  • To achieve cow productivity, farmers must address the twin issues of cow comfort and health, where health is the freedom from infections, injuries and metabolic problems.
  • To achieve cow well-being, farmers must address the twin issues of housing and management, where management covers all the normal farm practices associated with dairy farming.
  • Addressing cow comfort and housing means that the farm’s physical facilities must be optimized before putting cows in barns.

There are six key housing aspects of cow comfort, health and well-being, namely:

  • Water, with access to clean, palatable water at least 21 hours per day.
  • Light, with at least 6 hours per day of darkness
  • Air that is fresh and clean
  • Rest, with a dry and comfortable place to lie down for at least 12 hours per day.
  • Space so cows can walk to feed and water troughs from their freestalls without fear
  • Feed, in that cows can eat a palatable and well-formulated feed, on offer for at least 21 hours per day.

The stalls must also provide adequate room on a comfortable base for cows to lie down, stand up and rest, without obstruction, injury or fear. Dairy cows prefer to lie down when ruminating. If animals are found to stand with their back legs outside the stall or are lying outside the stalls, this is a sign of uncomfortable stalls.

Daily time budget for milking cows

A daily time budget for a typical milking cow in a freestall barn in the U.S. is:

  • Eating: 5.5 hours per day with 9-14 meals per day.
  • Resting: 12 to 14 hours per day, including 6 hours of rumination.
  • Standing or walking in alleys: 2-3 hours per day, including grooming, rumination and other activities.
  • Drinking: 0.5 hours per day.
  • Total time needed: 21-22 hours per day.

This indicates that cows have little time to spare, so time away from the pen should be minimized; this includes visiting the milking parlor generally twice daily.

Why Emphasize Cow Comfort?

The primary areas influencing cow comfort are stall suitability, floor surface and general space allowances that allow cows to exhibit their most natural behavior possible. Studies have identified that foot trauma and subsequent mobility problems increase with:

  • Uncomfortable, unsuitable or poorly-bedded stalls.
  • Prolonged standing on concrete surfaces, particularly if they are wet, new, worn or damaged.
  • Poorly maintained and uneven walking track surfaces with stones underfoot.
  • Impatient or inconsiderate herding.
  • Poor foot-trimming.
  • Bottlenecks and sharp turns from the feeding and housing area to the milking parlor.
  • Poorly-designed handling facilities, yards and cattle crushes.
  • Narrow passageways that allow the bullying of the more submissive cows by dominant herd members.

Observing your cows can determine if the following behaviors occur:

  • Are some stalls always avoided and empty?
  • Are cows mostly standing half-in or half-out of the stalls?
  • Do cows make abortive attempts to lie?
  • Do cows lie in alleyways or backwards in stalls?
  • Do cows sit back on their haunches like a dog?
  • During quieter periods in the barn, are more than 30% of the cows not lying?

If any of the above behaviors are seen, then a problem exists.

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