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Does your labor management meet your fresh cows’ needs?

Harley Wagenseller Published on 27 April 2010

Imagine that you have a 500-cow dairy with a fresh pen that has 50 freestalls and an equal number of lockups. Do you know how to meet your fresh cows’ needs? Can you notice small things that may possibly give you a hint that cow #2882 is having some postpartum concerns? Is your labor set up to handle these issues? We will consider a couple of ways to get organized to handle these concerns by focused observation and assessing risk management.

Try focused observation

How do you observe your fresh cow pen? What do you see or “focus on” when you approach your fresh cow pen? The first thing you need is to establish a regular time every day to observe and work with your fresh cow pen. I am acquainted with a farm that had the ability to check their fresh cow pen at 7 a.m. every morning. They were able to utilize a computer that gave them their 3X milking weights everyday. They would print out the production of every cow in the fresh pen as an aid to getting an insight to those cows.



As we know, milk production is one key indicator to your fresh cow’s health. Perhaps your herdsperson has the ability to actually milk and observe the fresh cows as they enter the milk parlor. Hopefully you have the ability to have fresh feed in a lock-up situation in order to physically look closely at each cow as they return from the milk parlor.

There are many things that you can practice “focused observation” on after cows are locked up. Do your herdspersons know how to manage their time to get the best for your fresh cows? Do you have a checklist to identify the issues that your fresh cows face?

  • Milk fever issues – slow moving, cold ears, sunken eyes, depressed appetite, weak muscles, etc.
  • Mastitis – fever (over 102.5°F); swollen udders; clear, water discharge when the udder is checked from a quarter or quarters, etc.
  • Insufficient energy intakes – possibly ketosis, poor rumen fill, low milk production, acetone smell on cow’s breath, etc.

Manure evaluation and body condition scoring should also be implemented. You and your herdsperson probably have one or more checklists available from numerous sources with any and all of this info and the possible “cures” to implement. What other things can you do to assess risk management and help your herdspersons?

Assessing risk management

This area most assuredly overlaps focused observations. There are other things to look at besides the time your fresh cows are in lockup. When walking back from the parlor to their group stalls, who do you observe? Are the cows alert? How clean are they? Do they have skin injuries? Do they have hock injuries or signs that neck rails are not properly adjusted? What are the cows’ posture? Any unusual swelling? How do they use the alleyways and stalls? Are 50 percent of your cows “perching” instead of lying down? It could possibly indicate hoof problems.

Are your cows drinking dirty water on the freestall floors instead of the clean water in your waterers? Are your cows lapping at the water trough instead of putting their muzzles in and taking a good long drink? Learning to evaluate these different cow signs can really help you to be a better herdsperson.


How is the lighting in your barn? Do you have two 100-watt bulbs in your freestall barn? Don’t expect miracles with your fresh cow personnel if you don’t have the proper amount of wattage in your barn. There are many brochures that will give you the proper lighting specifications for the size barn that you have.

As you walk through your barns you can assess different trials and tribulations. Are there slippery spots in different areas of your freestall barn that cows could injure themselves on? Is there a gate that is bent or warped that cows have difficulty passing through or around? Are there small stones or a “bolt” that sticks out in a very bad place that should be removed or fixed? Is cow comfort important to you and your herdsperson or not? It can mean the difference between a truly nice herd of cows as far as production and reproduction goes.

Eventually you will learn how to observe your cows with a purpose. Have your vet or other trusted dairy persons train your herdspersons as needed. Unfortunately some people will never develop this ability. I have often referred to this as the “whizzing bullet” syndrome. Some cow people never develop the ability to observe what goes on around them. It’s as if a whizzing bullet would fly 1 inch from their ear and they never notice it. An example of this is when you send one of your personnel to put a cow into the hospital pen who has a 5-inch cut on her right rear leg, stands in the corner by herself and is the only solid white cow in her group. They will come back to you and tell you they can’t find her and they walked the pen three times looking for her!

As your herdspersons get used to walking the pens daily they will get better at noticing things. They will even notice that cow so-and-so is in the wrong group! Now you know they are getting better at this “purposeful observation”! They can only learn by spending time in a routine way doing this.

Don’t forget to also walk through your other lactating groups, dry cows and springing heifers. Walk slowly through the pens. At the aforementioned farm it was not unusual for only one or two cows to rise out of their freestall group of 140 and start walking. Why? Because of the care with which the herdsperson would do his walking observation.

Many consultants who visited the farm would comment how tranquil the cows were. Is that the goal of your farm? Many had noted that on some farms as much as 75 percent of the cows were on the march as soon as someone would enter. Try to eliminate this problem by instructing your personnel to be gentle around the cows. Make it a goal to eliminate shouting and loud whistling at your dairy. Some personnel feel that they are on a cattle drive in Wyoming when they are moving the next group to the holding pen. Their motto is faster, faster, faster. If your goal is quality, then this “cattle drive” mentality must be eliminated. The “chair and a whip” philosophy that a lion tamer uses at the circus must never be allowed in your fresh pen or at any place on your dairy.


Putting it into practice

So what’s the purpose of focused observation and assessed risk management? Simply to get your fresh cows off to the best start in the production phase of lactation. At the previously mentioned farm it was not unusual for many fresh cows to be making 100 pounds a day and more by day 10 of their lactation. Try to smooth out all those “bumps in the road” so that your cows maximize their productivity. All of this “paying attention to detail” will pay off in big ways as your herd moves forward.

So, how did our cow #2882 do regarding her postpartum concerns? Our herdsperson followed protocol and she went on to finish her lactation with 32,789 pounds of milk, 3.82 butterfat, 3.09 protein and pregnant with a heifer calf on her second service. PD

Harley Wagenseller