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Producers share secrets in keeping cows healthy and happy

Progressive Dairyman Editor Jenna Hurty-Person Published on 10 November 2016
animal welfare panel

In the past several years, there’s been an increasing push for better animal welfare on dairies. Various organizations and companies have written guidelines for producers and given them criteria to follow, but how that’s carried out varies based on several factors, including the dairy’s size, location, management and resources.

During the Dairy Cattle Welfare Symposium, May 20-21, in Columbus, Ohio, Don Bennink (owner of North Florida Holsteins), Juan Velez (chief agricultural officer for Aurora Dairy) and Teun Verhoeven (owner and manager of Twin Oak Dairy) took some time to share with attendees some of the steps they’ve taken to promote animal welfare on their dairies.



Don Bennink
North Florida Holsteins, Bell, Florida
Milk 3,700 head

For Bennink, the first step to good animal welfare is to breed the right cow.

“We have spent too many years breeding for the wrong things. Too much Holstein genetics has been decided by people sitting behind a desk, and they’re wanting bigger, taller, sharper, and if you looked at all of the factors behind bigger, taller, sharper, that really reduces the health and survivability and livability of the animals. We can really breed for better animal welfare by going about it genetically and breed animals that are more resilient and tough. They won’t need all of the antibiotics and treatments and so forth because they’re built resilient and tough. Now that we’ve got genomics, we can look inside her and find out she’s got that, whereas in the past we just looked at what we could see phenotypically. So I think we’ve made some major advances this way.”

He also places great importance on cow comfort. In northern Florida, keeping cows cool is a major part of that. In addition to misters, feedbunk sprinklers and fans in the freestall barns, Bennink also uses sprinklers and fans in the holding area where the animals are crowded together, making it harder to keep them cool. He prefers to use the sprinkler system in the holding area because the quick drench soaks the cow, cooling her quickly, but the fans keep the air moving so she’s dry by the time she enters the milking parlor.

Once the cow exits the parlor, she is free to go right back to eating or resting in a stall, minimizing her time away from the freestall barn.


“We stay away from lockups. With the stresses in our climate, we don’t like having the cows spend an hour or more in stanchions, particularly if someone comes and shoots the breeze with the herdsman; we want these cows as soon as they’ve eaten to go to their stalls and lie down.”

In addition to being sand-bedded, the freestalls themselves are a little different than the traditional freestall.

“We have some quite different opinions on freestalls than most people. They absolutely don’t want to take a chance of getting any manure in the stall at all, so they tend to put the cow’s rump over into the aisle. That also creates problems. That’s why the tail docking is so important with these folks. You can see as you look at the cows here every tail is under the cow. The other thing is that our back curb is a foot wide. We want cows when they stand up to stay in the freestall. We don’t want them to perch. Most of your foot problems are in their back feet. When a cow perches, she tends to put two-thirds of her bodyweight on her back feet and stresses them that much more. We really like dry, clean feet, so we want that cow to be standing in that stall so she keeps her feet dry. Yes, we will get more manure in the stall, but most of that manure is on this foot-wide concrete curb, so you’re really not wasting bedding.”

In addition, cows spend all of their time on rubber flooring that is scraped frequently to help with traction and better hoof health.

“We essentially have rubber flooring of one type or another in all of our freestall barns. Because we scrape barns, probably the rubber belting has worked out the best. So far we haven’t found any mats that stand up to our level of scraping. We like scraping, and again it’s an animal welfare matter better than flushing. With flushing, floors tend to get slimy and slippery, and particularly the rubber, and end up with more down animals. By scraping the floor, you keep that slime off the rubber. We like the rubber to be grooved. We like it to be moderately soft. It is too hard, it gets too slippery, and they’ll be going down on you. We want it to indent a little bit when the cow walks, have the grooves, but if it’s too soft, it creates problems.”

He later explained, “One thing that I’m a little fanatic on, and I don’t know that all of the foot people agree with me. I think it’s real important that cattle’s feet be kept both clean and dry as much as possible. I think clean and dry are not terms we hear people talk about much. I think it’s really important in disease prevention. I like to have a foot that gets a little more tough and a little more rugged. Cattle that have their feet in water all of the time get a foot that gets too soft, particularly if they get on any new concrete. I say this mostly from experience.”


However, the benefits of the rubber flooring really shine when the cows enter the parlor. Due to the increased comfort, they move much faster and easier on entry, enabling the dairy to milk 3,700 in a double-forty parallel parlor in about 7.5 hours. On average, the farm’s employees milk just shy of 500 cows per hour.

Juan Velez
Aurora Organic Dairy, Platteville, Colorado
Milk 20,000 head

At Aurora Organic Dairy, Velez’s main method of promoting animal welfare is to make it part of the dairy’s culture. He does this through training and making sure it’s in the forefront of every employee’s mind. This is especially critical for him as his dairy is spread out over four locations and two states, meaning he cannot supervise everything on a daily basis.

The dairy does have cameras, which were installed several years ago. They help with positive feedback and in situations where there is a case of mistreatment; however, Velez says when there is an issue of mistreatment, it is now reported by the employees themselves.

“Today, actually most of the reporting comes from other employees, so that’s why we believe that the culture has been created because bad behavior is being reported by other employees. It happens very little – one or two a year for the last six or seven years.”

Training and certifications are also a component of creating the animal welfare focused environment. Employees go through a variety of training based on their specific role on the dairy. Once a year, the dairy works with Dr. Jan Shearer, professor at Iowa State University, to train the dairy’s vet staff and certain employees in hoof trimming and euthanasia to ensure cows receive proper treatment promptly.

“We should not have locomotion score 5s in our herds. I don’t think that we in the dairy community euthanize as often as we should euthanize. There’s many reasons that veterinarians do not do it. It’s very expensive the way that we were trained in vet school, so it’s hard to train somebody to do it the right way with a bullet or with a captive bolt gun. We’re very fortunate to work with Dr. Shearer for many years on training our people. Dr. Shearer has trained our vet staff, who in turn go ahead and train our key employees that get certified to do euthanasia and do it on time. Same thing with the master hoof care program that we have with Dr. Shearer.”

When it comes to the milk barn, however, Velez takes a bit of an unconventional route to train them. Instead of training milkers on proper protocols, he only trains the managers and leaves the milker training up to them. Each year, milkers take a recertification test to make sure the managers have trained them properly.

Finally, Velez wanted an outside opinion to hold him and his team accountable for their actions, which is why he hired Validus to audit the farms periodically. Bringing in the third-party assessment has proved useful, not only because the farm is now animal welfare certified, but because it pushes the farm to do better. For instance, they convinced Velez to give his pastured dry cows access to shade. At first he wasn’t convinced that it was necessary, but after installing them, he was glad they pushed for it and now sees why it was necessary.

“Yeah, it’s Colorado. It may get a little bit hot. It may get a little bit over 90 degrees, but the nights are cool. Dry cows don’t need shade. They’re grazing. They’re OK, but Validus kept pushing and Validus kept pushing: ‘It’s not enough nonconformance that I’m going to remove your certificate, but you have to have shade for your dry cows.’ Obviously it was the right thing to do.”

Teun Verhoeven
Twin Oak Dairy, South Solon, Ohio
Milk 1,500 head

For Verhoeven, promoting better animal welfare didn’t mean changing how he cared for his animals. He learned a long time ago that better animal welfare makes his dairy more profitable.

“We’ve learned through the years that the better we take care of our animals, the more profitable our dairy is. I haven’t had one single thing we did to improve animal welfare that wasn’t profitable. You can always translate it back to money, and I’d like to think I’m pretty good at money. We did the math on overcrowding and all of these practices that all of the dairies used to do and do less now, but it just doesn’t pay. Taking care of the cow always pays.”

Now that animal welfare is in the spotlight, he realizes the importance of recording it even if paperwork isn’t his favorite thing to do. It’s a good way to build confidence and one way to be transparent.

“You can look at it as an opportunity or a threat. Since we were always focused on animal welfare, we looked at it as an opportunity. Animal welfare today for us just means we have to document it because most of the practices we did already. So it’s like transparency. ... We just have to show and write it down so we can explain how we take care of our cows, how we milk our cows, how we feed our cows and how our cows live and how we handle our cows, so basically everything needs to be written down. And that is a problem – at least for me, it is. I did not choose this profession because I like people. I like to work with cows. I definitely didn’t like to work with computers, nor do I like paperwork, and that’s what it takes.”

At the end of the day, those records are the measurable proof he needs to show that his animals are well cared for.

“You can talk the talk and you can walk the walk, but you can only show that by records. That’s the only thing you have nowadays to show what you’re doing.”  end mark

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PHOTO: During a producer panel presentation at the Dairy Cattle Welfare Symposium in May 2016, (left to right) Juan Velez, Don Bennink and Teun Verhoeven shared how they manage for better animal welfare on their operations. Photo by Jenna Hurty-Person.