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Cow observations that make you money

Neil Michael and Jon Rasmussen Published on 31 October 2011

Observing cows is nothing new in the dairy business – we all do it every day. But taking some time to critically review a few fundamental cow behaviors on your own operation can have great effects on cow health, performance and the overall attitude of employees within your business.

Here are some good areas to watch during your next walk among your cows.

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Flight zones
When you or your employees walk into a pen of cows, how do the cows react to your presence? Do they notice you and head to the opposite end of the pen, or can you walk from one end to the other without a cow taking a step?

This is a very telling sign of the stress levels of your cows. Remember, the goal is for the cow’s energy to be spent on producing milk, not on dealing with high levels of stress.

If cows do run away, do you or your employees have the training and skills to calm the animals and literally “bring them to you?” This applies to other areas of the farm as well, such as headlocks, treatment pens, palpation rails, the milking parlor, hoof trimming chutes and other areas of the dairy.

If your cows seem offended by different areas or handlers, what can you do to improve the situation?

A valuable first step is doing a little research on dairy stockmanship. Learning more about handling techniques could enlighten you to several ideas on why cows react they way they do. For more information, visit: www.dairystockmanship.com

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Time budgets
When it comes to cow activities for high-producing dairy animals, almost half the day (about 12 hours) should be spent lying down. In addition, cows should spend five to six hours eating and another two hours for drinking and social activity.

Conversely, management activities include periods when animals are held for observation or treatment (about one hour per day) and turn time (time away from the pen for milking) of three to four hours total per day.

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If management times are increased beyond four hours per day, cow behavior will be forced to change, resulting in less lying, eating and social activity.

Lying times can also be affected by stocking densities above 120 percent.

A time budget calculator (See www.whminer.com/dairy.html ) can be used to estimate available times for critical cow activities and often helps producers uncover costly time budget errors due to extended management times. (See example budget in Figure 1 .)

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Cow placement and stall use
Properly sized freestalls and a well-maintained bedding surface are critical in providing a clean, dry and comfortable place for cows to lie. Although stall dimensions have been reviewed repeatedly in recent years, a frequent observation seen on commercial dairies today is an inability to correctly position animals within the stall area.

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Common reasons include stalls that are actually too large for the animal and allow side lunging and improperly maintained bedding surfaces, resulting in udder health concerns.

Properly sized and maintained stalls should position 85 to 90 percent of the animals lying down to the rear of the stall within two to four hours after a milking, as shown in Figure 2 .

Monitoring animal placement and stall use is best achieved by making a valued member of your dairy team, such as your veterinarian or nutritionist, accountable for monitoring stall use on a routine basis when they are at the dairy. This works well since they do not see your animals every day and can more easily notice issues that have become “normal” to your team.

Use of current technology like smartphones and tablets to capture pictures, videos and real-time data are great tools to review with employees responsible for stall maintenance.

Locomotion
Among the observation areas that can be affected by turn time and time on feet is locomotion. This is definitely not new to the industry, as we’ve seen a good deal of press over time on dealing with lameness challenges.

Who measures the locomotion on your dairy? Is it someone that uses objective measures like a scoring system or simply someone walking by a pen of cows?

The most common scoring system is a 1-to-5 scale that measures cows in both their standing and walking positions. A score of 1 should be a perfectly healthy cow producing a good deal of milk. A score of 5 is a cow having trouble getting around and likely missing 15 percent of her milk production.

Locomotion scores can be recorded in any area that is flat, non-slippery, not altered by labor (cow pushers) and allows animals to display their normal walking tendencies. Transfer lanes from the parlor are great areas to evaluate locomotion scores in your herd.

Hanging a small foreign object (clothing, plastic sleeve, etc.) on the return gate will result in animals briefly hesitating, which allows the observer to more accurately score the animals. Outside members of your consultant team are great candidates for monthly scoring. For more information on locomotion scoring, visit the UW vet school or Zinpro Corporation’s websites ( www.vetmed.wisc.edu or www.zinpro.com ).

Eating behavior
In an ideal world, cows would come back from milking, drink some water, find the feedbunk, eat a good meal, drink some more water, lie down and maybe cycle back to the water and feedbunk a few more times before the next milking. While lying down, she will hopefully be chewing her cud or sleeping.

Not every cow follows this pattern, but observing this picture can let us know what the cow thinks of the feeding system. If feed is delivered late, she may lie down and develop an irregular eating pattern for the day.

Could this cause her to go off feed or develop inconsistent manure? Even worse, it may affect her ability to produce an abundant supply of healthy milk.

We could see similar eating patterns if the feed is delivered at the same time every day but the mix is different. Maybe the cows are really pushing the mix around because of particle length and getting all the corn and protein with little fiber. Perhaps spoiled feed in the mix causes palatability challenges and some cows to change from their textbook behavior.

There are numerous experiences of improving feeding systems and diets that have had significant production changes in herds. Thus, these observations are absolutely essential and, like all the observations we make, something to critically consider.

These observations need to be made daily by an internal team member, with outside consultants also observing on a regular basis.

Facility observations
Dead-end alleys are the term given to alleys with an abrupt gate or partition that do not allow animals options to freely move to and from the feedbunk or water. The resulting social interactions may explain why overall intakes within a pen do not reach expectations. This can be extended to the layout of different parlors and holding areas.

Do cows flow in and out with ease or do you see bunching and challenges getting cows to enter and exit? Hopefully observing the environments and thinking through upgrades in the future will encourage us to consider environment to improve the social interactions of our cows.

At the end of the day, few things are more important than observing your cows’ behavior and optimizing their environment. Each time we do, cows respond by attaining better production and health than previously. Make a commitment to monitor cow behavior on your operation using key members of your consultant team – both you and your cows will profit! PD

Rasmussen is a dairy specialist, and Michael is a veterinarian. Both are employed with Vita Plus .

References omitted due to space but are available upon request to .

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Neil Michael
Director of Dairy Initiatives
Vita Plus

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