Eight issues standing in the way of increased cow comfort

Cow comfort is like apple pie and world peace; nobody would say they don’t want it, but we don’t all achieve it. These eight issues are ones that sometimes confound our intentions.

Most people in dairy recognize the value and payback of cow comfort. Beyond the benefits of improved performance and health, dairy producers want their cows comfortable because they care for their cattle.

If we all want comfortable cows, we should think about what that means. I define cow comfort as the relief or prevention of stress. Stress can occur from many things including weather, air quality, handling, social interaction of animals, overcrowding, stall beds, standing and access to feed and water.

Yet, there is a wide variation in what we actually achieve in terms of cow comfort. These eight issues highlight some of the challenges in translating intention to comfort.

  1. Stress may be viewed as “temporary”.  Sometimes we recognize that cows are under stress, but figure it is temporary and we can get away with that. For example, maybe we ignore heat stress because we underestimate the amount of time cows are stressed and the impact of that “temporary” stress. But even temporary stresses can have lasting effects. Evaluate the stresses that we may regard as temporary and look for ways to reduce those even as we move toward a more comprehensive solution.
  2. Management can mitigate some stresses. The stresses of overcrowded barns can be reduced by scraping manure more frequently, keeping feed pushed up, even installing headlocks to reduce aggressive behavior. However, we must be careful that management practices that reduce stress are not used to substitute for more structural changes that prevent stress.
  3. Stresses are cumulative. It may be that cattle tolerate one stress, but when another is added to it, a breakdown occurs. Overcrowding is always worse when combined with heat stress. Extra time standing in the holding area is worse when cows outnumber stalls so they have to send more standing in the barn. Feeding to an empty bunk is worse when feed space is limited. We need to recognize the cumulative effect of stress on cattle and work to provide relief even if we haven’t seen negative impacts yet.
  4. What we see daily becomes “normal”. Day after day, we may see cows perching in stalls, cows with a slight arch in their back when walking, or cows with the hair rubbed off on the back of their neck. Because we see it so often, it may not seem abnormal. Yet, these all indicate problems. Michigan State University Extension reminds dairy producers that counting, measuring, and analyzing records can help us “see” what our eyes may miss. In addition, one way to overcome this problem of abnormal becoming normal is to have an outside eye evaluate the farm and indicators of cow comfort.
  5. We may focus on one stress and miss another. If we place all the emphasis in one area, we may miss something else. For example, we may have comfortable stall beds, but because we overcrowd, cows don’t have enough time in them. We can put rubber mats on the parlor platforms, but not train employees in gentleness and patience. Maybe we do a great job of heat abatement in the holding pen but have cows in there too many hours a day. Balance is important. Cow comfort is about reducing or preventing all the stresses the cattle encounter.
  6. It may not be easy to measure the impacts. Scientists may measure changes in time spent lying, milk production, disease or lameness prevalence or reproductive efficiency, but how do producers evaluate the impacts? Some changes due to stress are difficult to see or measure. One way to measure is to take a pictures looking down the cow pen each day for several days two hours after feeding before making a change and then again after making a change. Count the cows lying in beds and the cows perched and see if there is any difference. 
  7. Just because cows prefer it doesn’t mean that it is justifiable. We know that cows prefer to walk on rubber rather than concrete. Does that make it economical to put rubber in the parlor return lane? It seems that cows prefer grooming brushes, does that mean that there is any positive return or lasting effect? It is important to know what you want to achieve before making an investment and to determine how you will measure whether you achieved it.
  8. There may be unintended consequences. It is good to think through the consequences of actions that may on the surface seem positive, but it is possible that drawbacks may exceed the benefits. For example, if cows stand in line to get under the grooming brush, are they spending significantly more time on their feet? Or if we increase water use for cooling in the barn, do we increase environmental mastitis? Monitor the consequences of actions.

Cow comfort is a progressive on-going effort to reduce or prevent stress on cows. We don’t know everything about how cows are affected by things. Therefore we need to humbly continue to observe cow behavior, measure performance and analyze this amazing beast.

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