Comfortable Cows

Having just sat down on my very comfortable sofa at the end of a long day on my feet and musing on what I should write about, the issue of comfort and the value it brings to cows seemed an apposite subject.

Just lying about

Many of you will be aware of the value of cow comfort to your business, but how well do you know what a cow wants to do? Cows divide their days into distinct bouts of eating, drinking and lying. On average cows will aim to have around 8 bouts of lying per day and on average will lie for around 11 hours a day. Lying behaviour differs between heifers and older cows with heifers dividing their lying time into more individual bouts but with each bout having less duration than older cows.

Cows have a strong desire to rest and prevention from doing so (e.g. due to prolonged periods waiting to be milked or a lack of space) will cause the cow to make up for “lost time”. This will be done by extending the period they will rest for when they do get the chance. This will happen at the expense of feed intake i.e. resting takes priority over feeding in a cow’s time budget with an additional 1.5 hours/day standing time associated with a 45-min reduction in feeding time. When heifers and older cows are co-mingled, resting time is reduced much more for the heifers than for older cows, this especially being the case where the stocking densities are high.

A comfortable cow is a productive cow

It then comes as no surprise that lying is strongly correlated to milk production with the most productive cows consistently lying more than less productive cows; this probably being related to a better quality of rumination. One study suggested a figure that for every extra hour per day the cows lie down, they would produce 1.6l more milk per day.

This fact was recently reinforced to me by the observation from a farmer I have just visited who, despite using high quality water bed mattresses for his milking cows stated, that the cows on his straw yard, (these being those cows not prepared to use the cubicles etc.), were still significantly more productive: 3-4 litres per day was his estimation.

It should be borne in mind that these requirements to rest are not just the preserve of lactating cows. Work has demonstrated that both heifers and multiparous cows which ruminated and rested for longer in the close up period to calving had greater feed intake and yields post calving.

Taking the weight off their feet

However, it is not just production that will benefit, cows that lie down more, not surprisingly, will be less prone to lameness. This being particularly the case for heifers and early lactation cows, and obviously especially the combination of the two. The reasons are self-explanatory: cows that lie down more will have less wear of their horn and have less concussive impacts on their feet, the reduction of these factors thereby reducing the damage to the horn growing tissue that is at the root of non-infectious lameness such as solar ulcers.

Every little bit helps

Patently the above would suggest that investing in optimal comfort makes good sense, but clearly raising the capital to go out and invest significant sums in a state of the art cubicle house is, for the most part, not a realistic goal in the current climate. However, there is no reason why changes need to be excessively costly.

Firstly, changes can be made incrementally, i.e. improving the comfort of a few cubicles at a time is still a better option than doing nothing at all. This being especially the case if we can then reserve these improved cubicles for the most at risk cows, such as the heifers and those in early lactation. (Even if no changes can be made, housing the early lactation heifers separately to reduce the pressure on them and allow then to express their different behaviour is highly likely to pay dividends).

Secondly, often changes need not be very expensive, it could just be alterations to the cubicle dimensions or increasing the amount of surface bedding material. However, even changing the fundamental quality of the bedded surface can potentially be done relatively cheaply by using alternative solutions such as astro-turf to act as an underlay for mats.

The main thing is don’t be frightened to experiment, chat potential ideas over with us, then alter a few cubicles at first and sit back and watch; the cows will quickly tell you what they think of changes you make.

Who knows, the benefits you accrue might allow you to put in that new highly comfortable sofa for yourselves!

Alastair Hayton