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4 tips to establishing a positive environment for your cows

Ellie Steensma for Progressive Dairyman Published on 20 March 2017

The key to a successful dairy farm always starts with creating a positive environment for your cows. With new advancements in technology and efficiency available each day, it is important to be aware of the cows’ needs before making monumental changes to an operation.

Tom Lorenzen, an on-farm specialist from Alltech, introduced several ways to establish a positive environment during his Dairy Strong webinar posted online Jan. 10.

1. Cow comfort

The first step to success is ensuring cow comfort. All farmers know that happy cows produce the best quality milk, which is why cow comfort is the focus. While it’s a broad term and can apply to a variety of practices, Lorenzen believes producers should emphasize both clean and comfortable beds at all times. He prompted, “Find which [bed type] best meets your cows’ needs, not which one provides the most benefit to you.”

Stall size, neck rails and brisket boards are also important factors. Stall dimensions vary among cattle breeds but should be prioritized to ensure optimum comfort. Neck rails should be at a comfortable height and developed from a metal that will not irritate necklines. Lorenzen said that on one dairy he worked with, removing the brisket boards resulted in a 4-pound increase in milk production per cow and fewer lame cows.

In the last decade, bedding type has become a controversial topic among farmers. Lorenzen recognized Dr. Leo Timms, animal science professor at Iowa State University, for insight on this particular topic. A quote from Timms read, “Regardless of the bedding choice, comfortable, clean and dry are the goals.” Clean bedding ensures cow comfort and reflects a clean environment that portrays a positive image for the dairy industry as a whole.

2. Rumination, milk production and crowding

Studies show that a lactating cow will chew her cud 400 to 600 minutes per day. This indicates healthy activity levels and promotes higher milk production. Rumination monitoring is a proven indicator of cow well-being and health. When considering rumination, farmers should also be aware of overcrowding. According to Lorenzen, overcrowding is proven to reduce rumination time by approximately two hours, which further leads to a reduction in milk production. “For optimum comfort,” he said, “farmers should provide approximately 100 to 150 square feet per cow.” He added that dry cows need at least 150 square feet for resting and 30 to 36 inches of space at the bunk. Furthermore, calving pens should be open and clean to ensure the highest chance of calf survival.

3. Nutritional attentiveness

Rumination begins with sound nutritional practices. Lorenzen encouraged the development of a consistent strategy for TMR delivery. He introduced the idea of “empty bunk disease,” where cows come back to the bunk after milking to find it empty. The period of time following milking is the most crucial time for ration consumption because it is necessary for cows to consume nutrients for ideal milk production. Any nutrients lost in milking can be gained in subsequent feeding. Cows should be returning to clean, fresh feed in order to ensure optimum rumination and increase nutrient ingestion.

Another important factor for milk production is water. Lorenzen stated, “Water is the single most important ingredient in a dairy cow diet, but also the most underestimated and neglected.” Milk is comprised of at least 87 percent water, and dairy cows must consume up to 50 gallons of water per day in order to produce quality milk. Water should be clean and easily accessible. Lorenzen encouraged cleaning, draining and scrubbing water troughs on a weekly, if not daily, basis. Disease-causing organisms are commonly spread by contaminated water troughs. Water is often neglected because farmers tend to pay more attention to dry matter intake rather than water consumption. However, it is important to consider that water plays a major role in impacting dry matter intake. Clean and easily accessible water will stimulate increased dry matter consumption.

Economic factors also come into play with nutritional considerations of dairy cows. Citing several sources, Lorenzen touched on the effect of starlings on feed. According to the USDA, $600,000 was lost due to bird damage alone on three Kansas feedlot operations. Starlings are also known to carry Mycobacterium avium paratuberculosis, which causes Johne’s disease. Farmers must be aware of the economic impacts on their practices and manage outside influences such as birds to guarantee ideal dairy cattle health and nutrition.

4. Be consistent

Finally, farmers must be consistent in their practices. Cows are known to be creatures of habit. Once practices have been established by paying attention to cow comfort, rumination and nutrition, farmers should be consistent with practices that meet their cows’ needs. Finding a balance is not easy, but working toward the goal of optimum milk production is crucial to a successful dairy farm.

Since the dairy industry is constantly changing, new methods, innovations and insights will continue to arise. As long as the cows are happy and healthy, production will be efficient. Happy cows produce high-quality milk, and high-quality milk is what the consumers deserve. It all starts with a positive environment.  end mark

Ellie Steensma is a student in agriculture education at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa.

Watch the webinar on YouTube. 

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