Good times, happy cows

Cows have an ideal time budget for their day. As we affect that budget we can impact their well-being.

Dairy cows eating hay
Photo by Michigan State University Extension

As part of our Michigan State University Extension Dairy program this past winter on “Happy Cows Live in Michigan”, Kathy Lee (MSU Extension Senior Dairy Educator), and I delivered a session on the impact of stocking density on health and profit.

At the heart of the session was the idea that cows have an “ideal” time budget for their day. The time budget includes time for eating, lying/resting, standing/walking, drinking, and milking.

The ideal time budget consists of about 12-14 hours of lying/resting, 3-5 hours of eating, 2-3 hours standing/walking, ½ hour drinking, leaving 2 ½ - 3 ½ hours for milking (including time to get to the milking parlor and back). These are “ideal” and also averages. Just as people are unique, some cows may prefer less or more time resting, walking, etc., on a daily basis.

In managing cows on dairy farms, we can have a positive or negative impact on this ideal time budget. For example, if cows are waiting in the milking area for too long, they may be exceeding their ideal time for milking, taking time away from other important activities.

Interestingly, cows will prioritize how they spend their time if they are shorted in some area. For instance, cows will choose rest over feed if lying time is lacking. They can make up the amount they eat by eating bigger meals, but this can have health implications as well.

Cows may be shorted on lying time based on too much time in the milking area, walking long distances to the milking or feeding areas, or not having access to the stall that they want to lie in. In the latter case, cows will wait for an open stall, especially at night.

Cows can be looking for an open stall for a variety of reasons. First, cows are creatures of habit, and often times may have a favorite area that they prefer to lie in. Second, there may not be enough stalls for the cows to all lie down at the same time.

Not having enough stalls for all cows to lie down at the same time is, by definition, overcrowding. While that may seem harsh, the reality is that not all cows want to lie down at the same time. Why would farms overcrowd their cow laying areas? The main reason is the cost of these buildings. In Michigan, whether you are grazing cows or not, our milking cows spend at least half of the year indoors. Most Michigan dairies utilize sand bedded stalls for cows to lie in. While these barns are very comfortable for cows to use, they also come at a cost, and that cost per cow is the same whether you utilize the facilities for all of the year or part of the year.

That housing cost is borne by the number of cows in the barn. If a few more cows can be housed in the barn, without affecting their well being, we can reduce this “overhead” housing cost on a per cow basis.

The challenge for farmers is to optimize the economic output of their farm without negatively impacting the well being of the cows. Farmers are up to this challenge, deeply caring for their cows. With that said, as a farming community, we are always learning and growing in our knowledge of the care of animals.

New research by Dr. Albert DeVries looked at the optimum cow stocking density for farms and showed that the impact of overcrowding on profitability per stall is most affected by: changes in milk yield, the price of milk, and feed cost. Dr. DeVries’ study indicates that in times of low milk prices to dairy farms, farms should avoid overcrowding as it does not improve profit per stall.

What can you as a dairy farmer do?

Don’t overcrowd your free stall barns by more than 20%. Make sure all free stalls are in good repair and used by the cows. Emphasize good feed bunk management.

Groups in which overcrowding should be avoided are: mixed groups of older and younger cows (1st lactation heifers and 2nd + lactation cows), transition cows (close-up dry and fresh cows), and finally special needs cows.

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