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Cow Comfort Conference panelists share goals, considerations for keeping comfort key

Tamara Scully for Progressive Dairyman Published on 16 May 2017
cow in sand bedding

What are the most important aspects to keeping cows comfortable? How can dairy farmers realistically improve cow comfort? Why is comfort such a focus today?

A panel of experts addressed these questions at the 2017 Cow Comfort Conference, organized by the North Country regional ag team of Cornell Cooperative Extension. Panelists included Emily Yeiser Stepp, FARM (Farmers Assuring Responsible Management) Animal Care Program; Corwin Holtz, Holtz-Nelson Dairy Consulting; Daryl Martin, Glenview Dairy; and Lisa Ford, Cayuga Marketing.

Comfort is the goal

The dairy industry is moving in the direction of enhancing cow comfort, Yeiser Stepp said. The National Dairy FARM Program is designed to provide the dairy industry with a uniform approach and standards of cow care. The FARM Animal Care Program is meant to provide consumers and dairy industry customers with assurance that a humane and ethical standard of animal care is being upheld on all dairy farms.

Currently, 98 percent of the milk supply in 48 states is evaluated under the voluntary program, which outlines best management practice standards, trains FARM evaluators to conduct second-party evaluations and adds accountability via third-party verification and oversight.

“Helping employees to understand what’s best for the cow,” via stockmanship and employee training, can go a long way to maintaining standards of animal care, Yeiser Stepp said.

Cayuga Marketing has been a leader in animal care. Ford is a FARM evaluator and trainer, and has worked with all of the cooperative’s 31 dairy farms to implement the highest level of compliance and employee training. These central New York farms, home to 38,000 cows, had all been evaluated under the FARM program by July 2015.

The farms were held to stringent standards above the basic FARM Animal Care Program requirements, Ford said. The cooperative has also had a third-party evaluator audit 10 percent of their farms.

“The third-party verification was important,” she said, to demonstrate that humane standards were being practiced consistently and that standard operation procedures were being followed.

Costs and comfort

Martin of Glenview Dairy built a new facility two years ago, following a respiratory outbreak that devastated his 380-cow herd, leaving only 60 cows. After selling the remaining herd and working for a decade in dairy system designs, Martin offered insight into the impact infrastructure has on cow comfort and health. Whether cow, calf or heifer, pneumonia leads to lifetime health problems, and improving ventilation is key to prevention.

“I’m a big believer in natural ventilation,” Martin said.

The primary consideration, whether building new or retrofitting existing facilities, should be what is best for the cows, Martin said. The fastest return on investment should be a secondary factor.

“Plan before you build,” he said. “Plan for prevailing winds” to increase airflow. While a new build is “a large expense up front ... the return on investment is probably the quickest you’ll see.”

His new barn has high, insulated ceilings, 16-foot sidewalls and properly placed fans, all of which have ensured that his cows are productive and healthy, even during temperature extremes. The herd loses less than 1 pound of milk during the hottest summer days.

If a new build isn’t possible, retrofitting should pay attention to airflow and “keep air moving consistently. Over the cows is always the best,” Martin said.

Opening up sidewalls, adding tunnel ventilation if low ceilings prevent adequate fan placement, and starting any incremental improvements with the fresh pen will all go a long way to increasing herd health and productivity.

Outside wall extensions are one retrofit that Holtz recommends. Extending an old sidewall and moving the curtain out is a low-cost measure to enhance stall size and provide lunge room for cows in a freestall barn, and is “working extremely well” at some of his clients’ farms.

Flooring can be improved by “roughing up the concrete to help out with footing issues” commonly seen in older barns, Holtz said. Feed access can be improved by reducing pressure on the cow’s neck, which occurs when the feed rail is too low or the feed walls are too high.

Stall bedding can have a big impact on cow comfort and health. Chopped straw with lime over waterbeds in a deep-bedded situation is “not cheap,” but has resulted in “absolutely the cleanest cows” he has seen, with average somatic cell counts ranging between 90,000 to 130,000, Holtz said. “It’s amazing.”

A more typical bedding option is sand.

“Most of my clients have converted to sand. Sand is great for cows,” Holtz said. “We aren’t necessarily bedding with deep-bedded sand.”

By decreasing the amount of sand per stall, but not sacrificing comfort, the cost is greatly reduced. He’s seen success using 5 inches of sand in the back of the stall, always bedding deeper in the front. The sand needs to be cleaned at each milking, every day. Cows will lie down when the sand is correctly bedded and maintained in this manner, he said.

Comfort and labor

Proper milking management; easy access to nutritional feeds and abundant, clean water; and adequately sized stalls with comfortable, soft and dry bedding are the benchmarks of cow comfort, Holtz said.

“As we deal more and more with labor issues,” which are occurring on farms of all sizes, cow comfort needs to be emphasized, Holtz said. Feed pushups are often neglected due to labor issues. Automatic feed pushups will increase milk “overnight,” and the equipment will pay for itself quickly.

“Pounds of milk per cow is what we get judged on,” he added. “That’s why we crowd cows.”

While crowding cows may increase daily herd output, crowding cows is detrimental to individual cow productivity. Crowding increases cow stress and decreases herd health. The best practices for optimal milk production don’t involve stressed, excited cows. A bored, calm cow is a contented, productive cow. If a cow is not being milked, eating or drinking, it should be lying down and resting.

The goal is “to make sure these cows live bored lives,” Holtz said. “Consistency is a big part of it.”  end mark

Tamara Scully, a freelance writer based in northwestern New Jersey, specializes in agricultural and food system topics.

PHOTO: Corwin Holtz said sand bedding is the preferred option for many of his dairy farmer clients. Photo by Peggy Coffeen.

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