Cow comfort is a cornerstone of a profitable dairy operation, according to David Reid, DVM.
“Profitability is driven by comfortable cows,” said Reid.
Studies from the William H. Miner Agricultural Research Institute have shown that cows that rest for longer periods of time produce more milk – up to 3.5 more pounds of milk per cow per day per additional hour of lying time after 10 hours.
“We need to maximize this lying time for several reasons,” Reid said. “One, when that cow’s lying down, it greatly increases the blood flow through the udder, which then allows maximization of nutrients to the gland, which improves production.”
He continued, “The other thing is that these cows need this lying time to relieve stress just from standing on concrete or being on concrete.”
When it comes to maximizing cow comfort, Reid offered a few tips.
Reid said the biggest thing to consider is the resting space for the cow. Freestalls should be correctly sized with room in the front for the cows to lunge.
“When we have appropriately sized stalls with free lunge space at the front, with the right size or right type of side rails that encourages the cows to lie straight, we keep the stall beds clean and the stall beds don’t get as many lumps and bumps in them that make it more uncomfortable for cows,” Reid shared. “A comfortable stall is really important.”
One of the issues Reid said dairy producers frequently lament is the cows not lying straight in the stalls. Manure deposits underneath the stall dividers or the back of the stall on the platform can be identifiers of this problem.
“The main reason those cows are lying sideways is because we’ve given them the option to do that.”
Correctly designed freestalls with the side rails and brisket locator optimized for cow comfort will encourage the cow to lie straight within the stall as well as allow the cow to get up and down easily.
“When that happens, cows are going to go to those stalls, lie down quicker, stay down longer, and they’re going to get all the benefits of that increased lying time,” Reid said. “Again, anything over 10 hours a day, the more we can lay those cows down, the better.”
Freestall designs can vary, so Reid advised that dairy producers look at what their cows are telling them when it comes to how comfortable the freestalls are.
“Where’s the manure being deposited in the stalls? How quickly did those cows lie down after they leave the parlor? Do people have to go and physically get those cows up to come back to the parlor, which tell you that the stalls are uncomfortable because they laid down at a late time and now they don’t want to get up?”
Also, pay attention to how the cows get up, as well as how they enter the freestall. Are they standing in the stall instead of lying? Do they seem reluctant to lie down? These are indicators that the stalls are not comfortable.
“When you have deep-bedded stalls, properly maintained, those cows will walk up into that stall and they’re down, they lie down very quickly,” Reid said.
Bedding choice is also a factor in cow comfort, and maintaining deep-bedded freestalls is key.
Freestalls should be filled with 4-6” of a soft material to maximize cow comfort and to provide an ideal cushioning effect to maximize lying time. Freestall bedding can range from inorganic material, such as sand, to organic material, such as dried manure solids, straw, sawdust, etc.
“The industry would say that sand is probably the best bedding,” Reid shared. “We know that if sand is dug on a regular basis in those stalls, it’s going to maintain a soft base for the cows to lie in. It’s going to allow moisture and any fecal matter to penetrate deeper in where it’s not getting close to the skin of the teat and skin of the udder, and it’s very comfortable.”
“If anybody said to me, “I’m building a barn, what would be the best bedding to put under my cows?’ It would be sand. Hands down,” said Reid.
Organic bedding materials can also be used, but these too require maintenance and management. Typically, new inorganic bedding materials must be added daily to keep the stalls full, dry and comfortable and to minimize bacterial growth that occurs as a result of the cows tracking manure into the stalls. Some materials, like sawdust and straw, are more difficult to maintain sanitary conditions under the cow.
Besides being more comfortable and limiting the growth of mastitis-causing bacteria, bedding that is dry enough can clean between the cow’s toes, minimizing feet issues that can lead to lameness.
“We know that lameness dramatically impacts the profitability and the longevity of cows,” Reid said, “so anything we do with our bedding and stall design to get those cows off their feet, and if that stall has the ability to dry out between the toes and clean that area, we’re going to see less lameness, which makes those cows more comfortable, and again, they’re going to live longer and stay in the herd.”
Another thing to consider when it comes to cow comfort is the degree of overstocking. Reid said most dairies are going to overstock at least some pens, but too much overstocking can have negative impacts on milk production.
“If you’re 10% over and you’re milking three times a day, you’re going to move those cows to the parlor three times a day, they’re going to get moved around,” Reid said. “Those cows will figure out how to get their lying time.”
Still, Reid said you have to be careful with overstocking.
“Remember that when you overstock, you have more manure in the alleyways, and more manure in the alleyways is going to result in more tracking into the stalls. It’s going to result in more manure around the legs of the cows, which increases the new infection rate for mastitis.”
Make sure that the people who are working with the cows are trained on the proper way to move them to minimize manure splash and dirty cows, which make the stalls dirty and contaminated.
Length of time away from stall
One of the trends Reid is seeing on larger dairies is a switch from
milking three times a day to milking two times a day. The main reason
for this is the amount of time it takes to traffic the cows back and
forth to the milking parlor, which is less time they have for feeding
“We have to think about the prime driver for productivity and longevity,” Reid said. “It’s got to be cow comfort in lying in stalls.”
Learn from other dairies
For dairy producers looking to build a new operation or expand on an existing one, Reid suggests they go look at dairies that are doing a good job with cow comfort.
“Go spend some time on those dairies and visit with the people who actually perform the work on the dairy and, in fact, the people who bed the stalls, the people who work with the cows.
“Go see dairies,” he emphasized.
Keep the cows in mind
The biggest piece of advice Reid shared is to design the dairy for the cows. He said making the cows more comfortable makes everything else on the dairy better.
“There’s a reason you build a barn, and that reason is it’s for the cows. Never forget that. And whenever we make a change on a dairy, we should always be looking at what it’s going to do for the cows.
“Oftentimes, we make choices that are easier for the managers or the manure system, and those choices in some cases are not what’s best for the cows,” Reid said.
With technology like rumination monitors and milk meters, it is easy to see how changes to cow comfort can impact milk production. The more data you have, the better you’re able to maintain what goes on in the stalls and barns to maximize cow comfort.
“That’s really the game in dairy – do what’s best for the cows.”
David Reid, DVM, graduated from Kansas State University in 1973. For the past 50 years, he has shared his expertise with the dairy industry as a veterinarian and milk quality consultant. He owns Rocky Ridge Dairy Consulting, LLC, located in Hazel Green, Wisconsin.