Give her room to drink

When Mike Larson noticed boss cows staking out their territory around waterers, he suspected the other 800 cows at his dairy were not getting enough to drink, despite providing the recommended water space per cow. So, the Evansville, Wis., producer, who along with his family own Larson Acres Inc., conducted an experiment. During an expansion project, they installed a temporary 40-foot water tank on one side of a 14-foot wide breezeway where the cows returned to the free-stall barn.

To their surprise, every cow that left the milking parlor stopped to drink. In fact, they lined up side-by-side, just like at the feedbunk. The fact that the cows stopped to take a long drink immediately after leaving the parlor — something they didn't do previously upon returning to their free-stalls — was enough to sell the Larsons on the need. This spring they plan to remove the temporary water system and install a permanent 40-foot water trough in its place.

With hot weather just around the corner, you need to make sure that your cows have an adequate water supply. Field observations have shown that inadequate space around the waterer can become a bottleneck for water consumption, says Jim Barmore, technical services specialist with Monsanto Dairy Business in Verona, Wis. More nutritionists and consultants now suggest a minimum of 14 feet of space around waterers.

14 feet of space
Monsanto's Barmore is one of a growing number of people who have been paying closer attention to water. Water makes up about 85 percent of the milk produced by cows. So, when your cows don't get enough water, milk output suffers. And, in times of heat stress, your cows" water needs multiply by 1.2 to two times.

Most dairies already have multiple waterers for each cow group. But even with adequate linear trough space per cow, water intakes can still be limited.

For example, look at the waterers in crossover lanes of free-stall barns. Although many barns have been built with 8- to 12-foot crossovers, today's facilities designed with cow comfort and 20,000-plus milk production in mind strive for 12- to 16-foot crossover widths. When you place a 2-foot wide water trough on one side of the narrow crossovers, the space around the watering area is 10 feet or less, which inhibits cow traffic and creates cow competition. (See the photos at left)

When space is limited, dominant cows tend to stake out the corners of the tank leaving the middle open. However, if a more-timid cow does not feel secure — meaning that she can easily back away from the dominant cows without being blocked by a cow crossing behind her — she will not drink from that middle spot for very long, and sometimes not at all.

However, when you place that same 2-foot-wide waterer in a 14-foot crossover, cows line up in a parallel fashion to drink, says Barmore. They do so because 14 feet allows enough room for cow traffic behind the drinking cows, and room for timid cows to retreat from the tank when they feel threatened by dominant cows.

Field results
When structural limitations prevent you from removing a couple of free-stalls to increase the space around the waterer, producers have seen good results with placing waterers in an alleyway or breezeway that the cows use after they exit the parlor. For example, when a 300-cow herd in western Michigan installed a 56-foot waterer in the space between the holding pen and the return alley from the parlor, it saw a 3- to 4-pound increase in milk production per cow per day right away. The water tank went into use last May, and the dairy saw a production response within the first week, says Jeff Kearnan, area marketing manager for Monsanto Dairy Business in western Michigan. Although not all dairies may see such a large response, when water is a limiting factor, you will see results.

On the dairies where Barmore and Kearnan have worked with producers to make changes to ensure a 14-foot zone around the waterers, the results have been positive. Among the observations:

  • Fewer problems with boss cows around the water tanks.
  • Higher dry matter intake and milk production in times of heat stress.
  • Almost all cows stop to take a drink when waterers are placed in breezeways or alleyways on the cows" return route from the milking parlor to free-stall barn.
  • More cows going directly to the feed bunk — even during the summer — once they have taken a drink.
  • Cows line up in a parallel manner to drink, which means more cows drink from the same tank space.

Water is the lowest-cost resource on the farm, yet it makes up 85 percent of the product you sell, says Kearnan. Don't let it become a limiting factor. Take some time now to evaluate your cows" water supply before summer heat hits full force.

Water checklist

  • Provide 2 linear feet of waterer per cow for waterers located in breezeways or alleyways on the way back from the parlor. Use no less than 1 linear foot of waterer per cow.
  • Provide a minimum of 2 waterers per group.
  • Clean daily.
  • Put outside waterers in the shade.
  • Locate waterers on the return trip from the parlor.
  • Make sure that you have water-fill pressure that's adequate so cows don't have to wait. Minimum well size is about 10 gallons/minute.
  • Consider using a water reservoir if your well capacity will not meet peak demand.
  • Plate cooler water is ideal due to the warm temperature; however, delivery can be sporadic. Be sure that you have a way to deliver constant water flow to meet cow demand.
  • Prevent stagnant water. Use a water depth in the trough that is between 6 and 12 inches.
  • If you place guards around a waterer to keep cows from standing in it, allow for 24 inches of clearance for their heads. Anything less can deter intake.

Install a waterer in the breezeway
Oftentimes, removing a couple of free-stalls to increase the space around a waterer in a crossover lane isn't feasible. Fortunately, you have other options.

One of the best places to add water is in the alleyways or breezeways that the cows use to travel to and from the parlor. The travel lanes are generally 14 feet or wider, depending on group size, so they become a natural place to add a waterer and encourage water intake when cows leave the parlor.

You'll want to size the waterer so that all cows leaving the parlor can drink at once.

If you have a double-16 parlor, for example, you will need a 32-foot tank (allowing 2 feet per cow) and enough water pressure to maintain water levels during peak demand. When sized correctly, in the approximate 12 to 15 minutes it takes to turn the parlor, one group of cows will drink their fill and leave the area shortly before the next batch of cows arrives.