It Pays To Care About Cow Comfort

Published on Tue, 05/21/2019 - 2:51pm

 It Pays To Care About Cow Comfort

 By Jaclyn Krymowski

 "Cow comfort” has become as common industry terminology as “herd health” or “somatic cell score.” Unlike the latter two, this phrase isn’t as easy to justify on a per dollar basis. Desiring animal welfare and relative daily comfort for livestock is something inherent to our human nature. Subsequently, they tend to also be better producers who show their appreciation in the milk check.

There are multiple facets to cow comfort, but the end goals are all the same - to improve both economic efficiency and enhance overall animal welfare. There are multiple ways to accomplish this, but we can put it into three broad categories. These are the physical, which primarily encompasses housing and management, psychological, which looks at stress levels and social behavior, and health, which includes things like nutrition and lameness. What does this mean for your herd and how you manage your animals? Let’s break these broad categories down to some practical applications to help you evaluate how you’re managing your animals’ comfort and overall well-being and see where you can improve.

Physical comfort
Every aspect of housing and management systems has garnered its own small libraries worth of research, articles, scientific and casual discussion. To keep it simple, let’s consider the cow’s environment in terms of her time budget. The approximate daily time budget for a cow in a freestall system, according to U.S. research is as follows:
-Resting/lying down: 12 to 14 hours per day
-Eating at the feedbunk: About five hours per day
-Standing, walking and general socializing: About two or three hours per day
-Drinking: About a half hour per day
Since a cow spends the majority of her free time lying down, stalls are a top priority. Comfortable stalls mean ones that are properly bedded and sized correctly to allow for animals to get up and lie down freely and entirely. A few quick walks through the barns during the quiet hours of the day can tell you a lot about how cows are using their stalls. Bare hocks or ones with lesions are tell-tale symptoms of poorly bedded stalls. Are cows avoiding certain stalls, having difficulties rising or laying, etc.?
There is some room for discussion about what constitutes overcrowding or undercrowding. For example, one study found a cow’s amount of time lying down wasn’t impacted until densities reached over 150%, but another found that densities as low as 109% resulted in a linear reduction of lying time and increased the number of aggressive interaction among herdmates. Some third-party verification programs require that there is a certain ratio of stalls to animals. On the flipside, undercrowding is an inefficient way to use resources.
Other environmental elements include flooring, ventilation and temperature. If you are having incidences of hoof issues and injuries from slipping, it may be time to look at your floor grooves. Cows should be able to walk safely through all alleyways, aisles, and holding pens. Likewise, the safety of the rest of the environment means little if ventilation is poor and temperature uncomfortable.

Psychological comfort
The psychological aspect of cow comfort is concerned with her herd behavior and low-stress handling. Bunk and stall space should allow for more submissive cows to escape more dominant ones and still perform their daily behaviors free from interruption. Some cows in freestalls or groups with more dominant herdmates may not get along and have to be moved elsewhere.
To maintain a low-stress handling protocol, all employees and family members must be on the same page for what is and isn’t acceptable. Likewise, your environment should accommodate this. For example, are all alleyways clear and free from obstruction? Shadows, unfamiliar objects and overwhelming light sources can make moving animals difficult and work against her natural instincts. Keep animal behavior in mind when discussing traffic patterns and proper animal movement.  

Comfort in health
This is one the place where cow comfort makes the most sense to dairymen – it helps directly with the bottom line.
One of dairy’s biggest concerns for animal welfare is incidence of lameness. Likewise, numerous studies have pointed to lameness directly impacting production, feeding, estrus behaviors and farm economics. You can gage the severity of the lameness in individual animals by practicing some basic locomotion scoring. Some 90% of lameness issues are in the hoof itself. While genetics does have a role to play, a lot of this stems from environment such as foot rot, hairy warts and abscesses.
There are different opinions on how severe and what frequency of lameness should be strived for to maintain the most “ideal” status-quo. One Canadian study found that an average of 20% of freestall cows were lame to some degree at any given time. According to the Animal Welfare Audit Program (AWAP) an “acceptable” incidence of lameness should be less than 3% of cows in a herd. However, some experts have said that more realistically acceptability should be 5-10% of animals having an obvious limp by locomotion scoring.
Another big contributor to health of nutrition. The specifics that fit individual herds is something to be discussed between management and nutritionists. Nevertheless, there are some basic components are universal in terms of welfare. Namely these are providing adequate bunk space for all animals, feed availability, proper body condition scores and having universal access to water at all times.

Why care?
Cow comfort can be tricky to evaluate progress on because its benefits don’t always immediately present themselves in a financial number. However, we are well aware only animals that receive optimal care will provide optimal production. This also goes hand-in-hand with animal welfare which is becoming of increasing importance to consumers and processors.
Do yourself a favor and invest in your animals’ comfort. Not only will you have the peace of mind in affording them the best possible quality of life, you will also be well ahead of many avoidable issues which present themselves in more stressful, less-optimal environment.