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Learning to Read the Languange of Cows

24 March 2009

US - Have you observed your cows’ legs and feet lately? Watched them walking? What about their eyes? Have you taken a close look at their production and health records?

Cows can give us signs by how they look, perform and behave on whether or not they are at ease. We all agree they deserve to be comfortable. It is our ‘contract’ with them. Give us milk and we give you a good environment, protection, feed and water, veterinary care. Limited research has shown that a comfortable cow produces more milk.

Cow comfort is becoming a hotter topic in our industry. The general public is more and more interested in learning how their food is being produced, and that includes animal care and well- being. The economic downturn has now reached the dairy industry too; cow comfort is an important factor for optimum performance.

When evaluating cow comfort, there are many areas to consider, including cow care and observation, feeding management, water availability, ventilation and heat abatement, cow grouping, cow movement, stocking density, stalls, floors and cow handling.

Behavior of dairy cows is affected by heat and humidity. Research in a freestall barn in Wisconsin showed that cows lie down three hours less per day when the temperature and humidity index increased from 52 to 73. In compost barns, we observed reduction in lying time of about four hours per day when the index was greater than 72 compared to less than 72. Limited research suggests that each hour increase in lying time can result in two to three more pounds of milk per day.

Resting time is essential for cow health and performance. Evaluate and measure stalls. Examine whether the stall surface offers cows optimal cushion and traction. Evaluate bedding moisture and cleanliness.

Watch how cows are using the stalls. How many cows are lying down in stalls? At any one time, of all cows in a stall, no more than 20 percent should be standing in the stall. Observe how cows are rising and note if they can express natural behavior. If they hesitate, there might be some characteristics of the stalls affecting their comfort.

Watch how your cows walk. Do they walk confidently or hesitantly? Slippery floors can cause stress and injuries. Stressed cows produce less milk; lameness is very costly and a huge animal welfare issue.

Many other factors are important for optimum cow comfort and productivity. Look, observe, and understand the signs cows are giving to let you know whether they are comfortable. Your cows are talking… are you listening?

Further Reading

Blackwell’s Five-Minute Veterinary Consult: Ruminant - Hundreds of top specialists provide coverage of 420 topics arranged alphabetically in Blackwell's Five-Minute Veterinary Consult series for ruminants. Get a closer look by clicking here.

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