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1008 PD: The five key comfort zones of the dairy cow

Harold K. House Published on 30 June 2008

There was a time when the best way to observe cow behavior was to pull up a chair, take up residence in the barn and watch the cows.

Then came modern technology, and we could use timelapse video photography to observe cows going about their routines. This makes a tremendous research and trouble-shooting tool, but most of us don’t have that luxury. We are usually limited to the snapshot approach. So if we are only given a snapshot of a barn to evaluate, what can we observe in a short period of time that will help us solve a challenge or recognize a behavior before it becomes a challenge?



There are five key comfort zones that a cow interacts with on a daily basis. They are:

1. stall area

2. barn environment

3. feeding area

4. flooring


5. lighting

This [article] will focus on improving cow comfort in each of these five zones.

Stall area
The stall area in a tiestall or a freestall barn is the resting zone and consists of the cow platform, made up of a base, bedding and a partition or divider. My colleagues and I have spent many years arguing about optimum base and bedding combinations, the merits of different divider shapes and the various dimensions of the stall parameters. We concluded when it came to stall dimensions it really was a game of inches.

Over the years we have concluded that an inch or two either way could make the difference of how well a cow used her stall. And, over time we also agreed that dimensions and divider types for sand-bedded freestalls could be different from those we recommended for stalls with mattress or other synthetic bases.

One of the goals of any dairy is to produce as much high-quality milk as possible. We need a clean, dry udder to accomplish this. So one of our goals in the resting area is to provide a clean dry place for a cow’s udder. Another is to provide the comfort so that a cow will rest 12 to 14 hours per day in a stall to maximize milk production. And the third is to allow her the ability to lie down, rise and move in and out without the fear of injury.

Behavior to observe
When you enter a barn, always try to observe the cows before they become aware of your presence. This may be easier said than done, but you want to try to get that snapshot of how the cows are behaving in their current environment. Try to observe:


The cow’s use of the stall

• Is the stall empty?

• Is the cow standing with two feet in the stall (perching)?

• Is the cow standing with all four feet in the stall?

• Is the cow lying in the stall?

• Is the cow lying in the alley?

The cow’s position in the stall while lying

• Is the cow lying straight?

• Is she lying on a diagonal?

• Are her feet outstretched?

• Is she curled up?

• Is she intruding in the space in the next stall?

The condition of the cow in terms of injuries

• What is the condition of her hocks?

• Is there hair loss?

• Are there any swollen joints?

• Does she appear lame?

The condition of the cow in terms of cleanliness

• Are her feet dirty?

• Are her legs dirty?

• Are her flanks dirty?

• Is her udder dirty?

Cows lying down or rising

• Does she lunge straight ahead, or to the side?

• Are there obstructions she encounters?

• Does she bang herself abruptly?

The cow’s environment or breathing zone is another important area for determining the comfort of a cow. Temperature, humidity and air quality all have an effect on a cow’s health, milk production and reproduction. These parameters are controlled through the ventilation system of the barn, but the environment may be further modified with sprinkler, misting or other air conditioning systems.

During cold weather the goal is to provide enough ventilation to control moisture in the barn. Cows respire moisture; moisture is given off from manure and urine in the cow alleys or gutters, or from water spilled around drinkers. A minimum amount of ventilation is necessary to remove the moisture to keep the humidity level under control. A dairy cow would rather be cold and dry than warm and damp.

In producing milk, cows generate a lot of heat. Most dairies rely on natural ventilation to remove heat, but it may be necessary to provide supplemental ventilation to cool cows during periods of heat stress. Additional cooling can be provided through sprinkler systems.

Air quality is also very important in terms of providing an environment free from harmful or irritating gases. Generally when we provide enough ventilation to control heat and moisture we will also be removing gases and replacing them with fresh air.

The ideal ambient temperature for a dairy cow is between 40ºF to 77ºF. At temperatures above 77ºF cows show signs of heat stress as they have to use energy to cool themselves. Their primary means of cooling is by heat loss through surface skin and the respiratory tract. As the ambient temperature and humidity increase, it becomes more difficult for a cow to cool herself. Cows that suffer from heat stress have reduced feed intake and consequently milk production. High-sproducing cows are especially susceptible to heat stress. Pregnancy rates are also affected by heat stress. They decrease sharply when the air temperature exceeds 86ºF.

Heat loss from a cow occurs primarily by conduction and convection, as well as by evaporation. As the temperature rises, it becomes increasingly difficult for a cow to dissipate heat. Rising relative humidity also affects a cow’s ability to lose heat via evaporation. Since heat loss depends both on temperature and relative humidity, a temperature-humidity index (THI) has been developed to indicate the amount of heat stress a cow is subject to.

Behavior to observe
1. Air quality

• Does the air feel heavy or humid?

• Does it feel stale with little to no air movement?

• Is there a noticeable smell of ammonia or other gases?

2. Cows panting

• Are cows panting or showing other signs of heat stress?

3. Cows bunching

• Cows may bunch where they feel air movement

• They may also bunch where there is no air movement

• They may also bunch to get out of direct sunlight

4. Cows clustered around waterers

• Cows may splash water to try to cool themselves

• They may lie around waterers if water has been spilled

5. Response to sunlight

• Cows will avoid direct sunlight during hot weather

Options to consider
Most of the behavior we have discussed is related to heat stress. Follow a three-step process to reduce heat stress in freestall barns. First of all, ensure that the natural ventilation system is working as well as it can be. Reduce any barriers to natural air flow around buildings.

Second, provide adequate water space and volume. Water consumption increases as temperature increases. Therefore, it is important to have the water where the cows need it, and have an unrestricted supply when they need it.

Third, supply supplemental cooling in the form of fans over the cows and sprinkler systems when necessary. When natural ventilation alone can no longer look after the heat load, one option is to install supplemental fans. Fans over the cows can increase their convective cooling rate significantly. If heat stress is still a problem, sprinkler or fogging systems can be used to increase the evaporative cooling rate.

Feed area
Comfort in the feed zone is necessary to maximize feed intake. It is surprising how many nutritional problems are actually cow comfort problems resulting from the cow’s interaction with restrictions, obstructions or poor-quality surfaces in the feed zone.

Our goal in the feed zone is to provide unrestricted access to feed for as long as possible. We don’t want cows standing in the alleys, so we have to control their access to feed without restricting this. Access has a lot to do with the type of feed barrier we use, and again, the dimensions that position it. The cow also needs a clean, durable, smooth surface to eat from. Old pitted concrete that harbors bacteria is not a very appetizing surface to eat from.

The other aspect of the feed zone is to have sufficient space for all cows to eat at once, or if that is not possible, as in a three-row or six-row barn, to keep the feed pushed up so that there is feed there when the cow chooses to eat. Pushing feed up also seems to stimulate the cow eating.

Unrestricted comfortable access to water is also very important. The water needs to be clean and available in the quantity that cows need to be able to drink as much as possible when they want to.

Cows should have unrestricted access to feed and water, both in quality and quantity, and when they want it. It has been determined that raising the feeding surface about 4 to 6 inches above where the cow is standing puts the cow at a more natural feeding position and increases the amount of saliva that the cow produces. The feed manger surface should be smooth, hard and durable to resist pitting from acidic feeds.

Providing rubber matting next to the feed manger to encourage improved feed intake is becoming more common. Cows are more comfortable on rubber and will stand longer, but the economic benefits are still not clear.

Behavior to observe
1. Do cows have bumps on their necks?

2. Do cows have swollen knees?

3. Are the mangers pitted and black with rotting feed?

Options to consider
Bumps on the necks of cows can often be an indication that the neck rail is too low, or that the cow is straining to reach feed. Swollen knees can again be a sign that the cows are reaching for feed or they could be related to injuries in other parts of the barn. Pitted mangers need to be resurfaced to provide a hard, durable eating surface.

When a cow isn’t eating, resting or being milked, she is standing or travelling around the barn. We need to provide good traction so that she can move without slipping and injuring herself, and display normal heats. And we need to consider the merits of providing additional comfort, especially at the feed manger, in the holding area and in the parlor.

Our goal with the flooring is to provide sufficient traction without being too aggressive and to provide cushioning where cows will be standing for extended periods of time. Floor surfaces need to have a finish with enough texture to provide traction for the cow as she walks, but smooth enough to clean properly. In some cases, the floors have been so smooth that the cows are slipping and injuring themselves and in other cases the floors have been so rough that they are developing foot and leg problems.

Behavior to observe
1. Do cows slip and slide?

• Cows slipping and sliding, especially when they are spooked or in heat, is an indication of slippery floors.

2. Do cows show caudal licking?

• Caudal licking, on the other hand, is an indication that the cow is quite comfortable with her footing.

3. Are regular heats not being observed?

• Cows not showing normal heats can again be an indication that the cows are just finding the floor too slick to exhibit normal behavior.

4. Do cows walk very tentatively?

• This may be an indication that the floor is too slippery.

• If there are slatted areas and the slats wobble, this will frighten the cows.

• Cows may be lame from floors that are too rough.

Options to consider
Floor finishes are important for cow comfort and safe movement. Alley floors need to be strong and durable, while providing good traction for cows. Surface texture and grooving can be used on concrete and rubber products to provide the traction necessary to keep cows from slipping and injuring themselves. Floors that are too slippery from repeated cleaning can be grooved or have the surface milled to improve traction. Make sure that cows can move confidently on your floors.

What role does lighting play in cow comfort? A certain quantity of lighting is necessary for cow management. Research has also shown that we can increase milk production by manipulating light levels in the milking barn. But are there more subtle things that will affect a cow’s behavior? Our goal with lighting is to provide sufficient lighting for good cow management which indirectly affects the comfort of the cow.

Behavior to observe
1. Are cows fearful in approaching certain areas of the barn?

2. Do cows balk when they pass through handling facilities?

Options to consider
Look for distractions to cow movement in traffic lanes and handling facilities. Look for shadows or bright light that may cause cows to balk or be spooked.

We have discussed five key comfort zones that cows interact with on a daily basis, but the list does not stop here. There are many other things such as barn layout, manure removal system, etc. that have an indirect effect on cow comfort. It is important for the dairy producer and those of us giving advice, that “cow comfort” becomes a “mindset” where we consider the well-being of the cow in all aspects of her environment and our interaction with her. Small changes can make big improvements. PD

References omitted but are available upon request at
—Excerpts from 2007 Penn State Dairy Cattle Nutrition Workshop Proceedings

Harold K. House
Engineer, Dairy and Beef Housing and Equipment
Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA)