Time management for dairy cows

Minimize disruptions to cows’ time budget by avoiding overstocking, providing comfortable freestalls and preventing prolonged times for milking and in lock-ups. Keeping cows within their desired time budget ensures good cow welfare, health and performance.

People talk a lot about time management. They want to prioritize their tasks and efficiently budget their time.

Dairy cows have their own time budgets. Behavioral routines of dairy cows were observed to determine the amount of time spent daily in various activities. Rick Grant of Miner Institute reported a typical daily time budget for basic behavioral needs of lactating dairy cows in a freestall environment.

Table 1. Typical time budget for lactating dairy cows                       

Activity                       Time devoted to activity per day
Eating 3 to 5 hr (9 to 14 meals per day)
Lying/resting 12 to 14 hr
Standing/walking in alley 2 to 3 hr
Drinking 30 min

When accounting for these basic activities of a lactating dairy cow (using mid-range values), that leaves 2.5 to 3.5 hours per day for milking and other herd management activities.

Requirement for Rest

Dairy cows have a strong motivation to rest. Their natural behavior is to meet their requirement for resting, which may mean less time for eating.

To ensure that dairy cows can meet their requirement for rest, herd management activities that reduce resting time should be avoided. Several common challenges to a cow’s time budget are:

  • Overstocking
  • Uncomfortable stalls
  • Excessive time outside of pen (e.g. activities related to milking)
  • Prolonged time in lock-ups


Several studies have evaluated different stocking densities in groups of dairy cows. In general stocking densities of 120 percent or greater reduce resting time by 12 to 27 percent compared with 100 percent stocking.

Grant has reported that stocking density should be less than 80 percent of stalls in the pre-fresh group. University of Wisconsin researchers also recommend that stocking density in close-up dry and fresh cow groups be determined by bunk space and suggest 30 inches of bunk space per cow in these groups.

Uncomfortable Stalls

Freestalls must be designed to allow cows to easily lie down and rise. The surface must be comfortable for the cow while lying. In addition, cows need to be properly positioned in the stall to minimize soiling the bedding. Length and width of the stall as well as the position of the neck rail and divider loop depend on the cows’ size. Sand is an optimal bedding, providing good traction and support to the weight bearing legs during rising and lying movements.

Excessive Time Outside of Pen

The primary reason for cows to be outside of their pen is for milking. Considering the time budget in Table 1, about 2.5 to 3.5 hours potentially are available per day for milking. This would include travel time to the parlor, time in the holding area and actual time in the parlor. For a herd milked three times a day, this would translate to 50 to 70 minutes per milking. 

Prolonged Time in Lock-ups

Given the time spent on basic activities by dairy cows and time used for milking, little free time is left for cows to spend in other activities. Time spent in headlocks will compete with the time for other behavioral needs. Minimizing time in lock-ups to one hour or less per day is essential for fresh cows. These cows are most in need of a stress-free environment and minimum disruptions to their daily routine.

Learn more about time budgets for dairy cows from Nigel Cook

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