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Improve cow comfort by focusing on what can’t be bought

Dean Throndsen for Progressive Dairyman Published on 04 November 2016

It doesn’t matter whether the margins are reasonable, like we saw in 2014, or drawn tight, like they are in 2016 – one thing we can always invest in is cow comfort.

How can we continually improve upon the housing we provide for our cows – cows we have such high expectations for – to provide the income stream for our dairy?

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In a good year, we look to buy, build and replace, spending money on remodeling, ventilation, bedding and other comfort products. But when times are tight, there are still so many things that can be done to deliver a cow comfort return. Some are improving processes we may have let slide during a flush time; others are simple maintenance chores.

Examine your cow-handling techniques

As prey animals, cows do not respond well to aggressive handling techniques. It is reported that poor cow-handling practices can result in enough stress on the animal to reduce milk yields by as much as 20 percent.

Have you spent time with those people who move the cows from one location to the next on the dairy to ensure they understand the importance of cow handling? Is it clear to those who handle your cows how you want them handled? Are you watching how the cows respond to different individuals?

Step in the barn and close your eyes

Hearing and listening play important roles in keeping cow stress levels down. Go in the barn during different times of day and smell and listen. What bothers you will likely bother your animals.

Mitigate the effects of heat stress

Though heat stress season is ending, now is a good time to think about a strategy for heat and humidity next year. We all understand the importance of keeping the cows cool because of how heat stress directly affects the level of milk in the tank, so what else can we do to ensure the exposure to heat-related stress activities is minimized?

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The greatest heat is generated when the cows are standing in the holding areas. Are we doing all we can to minimize the amount of time cows spend in the holding area? Do those in the parlor understand the importance of moving cows through the parlor as efficiently and quickly as possible to get them back in their cooler stalls?

Have you brainstormed a “summer routine” that may look different to help reduce this hot time? Perhaps we can take a lesson from manufacturing: “just-in-time” planning.

Just-in-time planning drives us to focus on ways to deliver the cows to the holding area “just in time” to be milked and then get them back to the pens quickly and safely without causing undue stress.

In addition to process improvements, have you taken the time to make sure all fans and water misters are working properly? When overnight lows climb closer to 80ºF, cows never get a chance to catch a break from the heat. Couple that with high humidity levels, and you have a recipe for cow stress that could last through the entire lactation cycle.

Do you remain vigilant in providing clean fresh water for the cows? Cleaning water troughs once a week is simply not good enough. I am not suggesting there is a “right” number of times to clean troughs, as each farm is different, but I am suggesting that as you walk through the barn, look at the water.

Would you drink from that trough? Is there debris in the water? Is there sediment on the bottom? If your routine is “when we have time,” it’s time to change your routine. The cows will pay you back.

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Ensure comfortable bedding

What are we doing to provide the very best stall bed surface for our dairy cows? By that, I am not asking: What is our choice of bedding? Rather, have we examined our bedding management practices to provide the most comfortable bed every day, year-round?

This summer was boiling. But soon, it will be brutally frigid with brisk winds. Have you become stuck in a routine that delivers the same bedding day in and day out?

We know cows perform best when routines remain the same day after day. But in this case, I think we need to be vigilant in assessing the barn conditions and adjusting our practices to compensate for fluctuating conditions.

On a -10ºF or -20ºF day, there are always challenges delivering bedding to cows. Frozen bedding, difficulty scraping, unique bacteria growth. Six months later, with temperatures in the 70s overnight, we will have new challenges.

Humidity, bacteria, wetness. If we don’t adjust our bedding routine to compensate for barn conditions, cow comfort suffers.

Examine the number of days beds are groomed, bedding added and beds cleaned. Look at different bedding materials or surfaces that react and perform differently, meeting different needs, as the seasons change.

Our goal is a comfortable, sanitary stall surface – and that doesn’t always fit into a simple formula for day in and day out.

Try cross-training employees

In industry, you often hear of cross-training, the practice of training one employee to do more than one job. It is one thing to do a job the same each and every time. We clean the water troughs the same; we bed the stalls the same; we follow the same routine while milking. If we are consistently good, these are all solid daily practices to ensure cow comfort.

But could there be a better way or a more efficient way of performing the “routine tasks?” If we have one person doing the same thing day after day after day, they lose the creative edge. Allow occasional routine changes and see if you do not experience changes in attitudes and morale or receive suggestions for improvement in the routine.

As the owner/manager, you should change your routine as well. Do you walk in the dairy the same way every day? Do you talk to the same people every day? Do you talk to them at the same time every day?

Perhaps it is time for you to take a look at your routine. Consider changing your routine; change the way you look at your dairy every day.

Show up at a different time, enter the barn from a different door, pick something new every week to look at that you have not looked at or neglected to look at for some time, and as your employees learn new tasks, talk to them and encourage them to talk to one another.

Commit to continual improvement

Often, we see far too much reaction to changing conditions than we see action.

Action means we have anticipated the changing conditions before they occur. We change our practices or routines before they become a problem. We manage. We think ahead. We then have a much better chance of determining the outcome instead of letting the outcome determine our reaction.

There is a lot to be said for routines and processes in the dairy industry, and especially for cows. Do not, however, let routines be a management tool. You are the master of your destiny, and as such it requires you to think, to be proactive and to anticipate.

Routines should be your staple, but they should not become so dominant as to take the place of continually improving management practices.  end mark

Dean Throndsen
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