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4 things no one ever talks about when it comes to cow comfort

Amy Throndsen for Progressive Dairy Published on 04 December 2020

If you’ve heard cow comfort talked about once, you’ve heard it 1,000 times: “If you take care of your cows, they will take care of you.”

Then, whoever the appointed expert of the seminar or Zoom room is will tick down the list of usual cow comfort topics. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to move the conversation about cow comfort beyond the tired debate about which bedding is “right” and on to things behind decision-making processes and management choices that play the greatest role on the farm.

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Here are some things to consider to dig a little deeper into cow comfort decisions on the farm.

1. No one ever cautions against quick action for an easy solution.

We all know ventilation is an extremely important aspect of cow comfort, and that stale air brings problems. If ventilation has been identified as the highest priority for your farm, more fans may not necessarily be the answer. It may be part of the solution, however, simply adding more fans may do more harm than good.

When considering the addition of more fans, ask these questions:

  • Is this location where the fans are actually needed?
  • Has the area been fogged to test the air flow?
  • How will the fans be angled?
  • Is there adequate electrical power? Who will run the electrical?
  • What’s wrong with the fans currently in place?
  • What’s the plan for maintenance? Who is accountable for maintenance?
  • How will the new fans impact winter versus summer air flow?

Sure, putting in a new row of fans looks like an improvement in cow comfort, but without asking more questions than thought necessary, this investment may not be doing any good for the cows.

This is true for any upgrade in the barn. Simply buying something and pulling it off the shelf does not make problems go away. Make sure advisors and the sales support team are asking lots of questions to get to the heart of the problem. This takes more time, effort and product expertise than just filling out an order.

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2. No one ever focuses on how improvements in cow comfort will impact cow longevity.

Think about how cow longevity – the average age of cows – plays a role in telling us how comfortable and sustainable the cows are? “The holy grail is being able to get cows into their late third, fourth and fifth lactations,” says Matt Lange, dairy consultant at Compeer Financia. To reach this holy grail of third, fourth and fifth lactation cows, many things have to be done right on the dairy, not just one thing.

“There’s a misconception about where profitability comes from,” Lange says. “Pushing 20 more cows through the parlor doesn’t always make you more money.” Instead, the question Lange’s best farmers are proposing is this: Could we get 100,000 pounds out of every cow before she leaves the herd? “The financial value comes when we’re not replacing cows,” Lange says.

He often asks dairy farmers these questions: 

  • Is the stall size and design still adequate for the cows you currently have?
  • Is there enough lunge space?
  • Do the cows struggle to lie down?

“There’s no better way to kill longevity of a cow than to make her stand longer than she needs to,” Lange says.

  • Can you find ways to get cows to lie down more?
  • Can their lying environment be made more comfortable?
  • Can bedding procedures be adjusted to make the environment softer and drier more consistently?
  • Should the neck rail or deterrent strap be adjusted to be more comfortable for the cow?
  • Who can help you ask more questions about bedding or stall design that you haven’t asked before?

See #1: There are no quick fixes to improving cow longevity on the farm.

3. No one ever talks much about how employee comfort impacts cow comfort.

As outlined with the other two “no one ever” points above, of course it’s not true that we never think or talk about it, but we can find ourselves working on autopilot. We do what we’ve done because we’ve always done it that way. We do what we’ve done because we have a million other priorities vying for our attention. We do what we’ve done because we don’t have time to think of a new way to do it.

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“Regardless of the size of the farm, whether it’s the high school kid from down the road or hiring done on a larger scale, it’s never been more crucial to have consistency in who cares for your cows,” says Emily Yeiser Stepp, vice president of The National Dairy FARM Program.

When was the last time the dairy owner sat down and thought about how to make the work environment more comfortable for employees? Perhaps it's been a while since they had that important conversation. “All the time, and it’s especially apparent during this time of uncertainty, you need to rely on everyone to keep the wheels turning and the cows comfortable,” Yeiser Stepp says.

Could the break/kitchen area use a new or additional refrigerator or an upgraded microwave? Is there something that could make employee housing more comfortable? Have shift supervisors been asked about what would help their team? When was the last time the team was surprised with something special?

4. No one ever talks about how small fixes can add up to make a big difference.

It doesn't take a lot of equipment, and most who visit the farm won’t notice a thing, but there are many small fixes that could be done around the farm to improve cow comfort. “It’s not exciting to fix injury points like broken loops, loose gates, exposed rebar, torn mattresses, broken brisket boards or rough plastic on calf hutches,” Yeiser Stepp says, “but those small fixes can make a big difference in overall cow comfort.”

Have you caught your sleeve on the gate for the last time? Have you walked by the bent loop one too many times? Is that brisket locator sticking out a little further into the stall today? Have you walked around the barn and looked for catch points that a cow could hit herself on (like a piece of rebar sticking out on a corner)?

Was there one thing that stuck out from this article that you can implement today, this week or this month on your farm? What’s the biggest difference it could make if you start talking about cow comfort in a way most people don’t?

These do seem like basic ideas, but as Lange says, “It would be a no brainer if everyone did it. Not everyone does it.”  end mark

PHOTO: Mike Dixon.

Amy Throndsen
  • Amy Throndsen

  • Chief Operating Officer
  • Advanced Comfort Technology Inc.
  • Email Amy Throndsen

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