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The most important 20 minutes on a dairy

Martin R. Lee Published on 19 November 2009

In recent years, cow comfort has become a topic of great interest in the dairy industry with many articles appearing in the popular and scientific press. This is no surprise since comfortable and contented cows are more productive. We continue to learn more regarding the best ways to keep cows happy. A cow time budget has been developed to help measure and manage the various parts of her day. This budget recommends about three hours for milking. Yet, this time budget does not specifically address the minutes when the cow is actually being milked. This is problematic because this is arguably the most important time of the day for the cow and her owner.

At about six minutes per milking, most cows spend less than 20 minutes per day actually allowing their milk to be harvested. This is the most important 20 minutes on any dairy! Everything we do on the dairy on a daily basis is for the ultimate goal of increasing milk production.

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After nutrition and reproduction, cow comfort is the next-most important element for achieving high production. Corrals and freestalls are maintained to provide a comfortable bed because cows who spend more time lying down produce more milk. Cows who spend more time lying down also have better foot health and produce more milk. Cooled cows in the summer months produce more milk and cows who are comfortable and relaxed while milking, give more milk.

All other things being equal, the dairy with more comfortable cows will produce more milk. The only time you are paid for your management efforts is when the cow is milking. Cows must be properly prepared, milked with efficient and safe equipment and then the machine should be removed gently and promptly after milk flow drops.

When comparing dairies, the dairy where cows are comfortable and content during the milking process will produce three to five more pounds of milk per cow per day. Clearly, the evaluation and improvement of cow comfort during the milking process is well worth the effort.

Maximizing cow comfort during milking also has profound implications for udder health as well. When cows show painful reactions during milking, they are telling you that the system is not properly adjusted and those conditions will result in increases in clinical mastitis, as well as elevated herd SCC levels.

For the purposes of discussion and evaluation, the milking process can be broken into three basic components. These are preparation, milking and detachment. All three parts need to be critically observed, evaluated and corrected if necessary to maximize cow comfort during the milking process.

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Cow preparation
Evaluating cow comfort during preparation activities is best measured by the presence or absence of purposeful kicking and the speed of milk letdown. A certain amount of treading and mild kicking seems to be common, especially when cows enter the parlor dirty. Milkers can be quite “vigorous” when cows are dirty, as they try to complete this task rapidly to maintain parlor throughput. But there is an obvious difference between milkers who simply try their best to get cows clean and milkers who are abusive. Abusive milkers should never be tolerated. Cows who simply react moderately to cleaning activities or cows who react aggressively to being touched by the milkers is the differentiating behavior. Purposefully kicking at milkers and delayed letdown are proof that all is not well during this part of milking. If letdown is delayed in spite of apparently effective preparation, this is an indication that some problems are occurring during pre-milking activities at other times when you aren’t watching and when other operators are working in the parlor.

Milking time
Cow comfort during actual milking is relatively easy to evaluate. Cows should stand quietly, only moving occasionally to adjust their position. The occasional kick-off will occur but should not be a common observation. If cows aggressively try to remove the machine during the milking process, this shows that the machine is causing pain and clearly indicates the need for equipment adjustments or change. A quick indication when you first walk into a barn is milking clusters covered with a lot of fresh manure. This manure got there from cows’ feet as they removed the machines that were causing pain. It is also helpful to watch the heifer pen because older cows learn to tolerate some marginal conditions that heifers will not. A lot of milk walks out of these barns when cows repeatedly kick off the machines because milkers became frustrated with trying to keep the machines attached and simply turn the cows out.

Detachment
The final part of the milking process to be evaluated for cow comfort is machine detachment. This is the most common problem in barns that I evaluate and it can be an issue in parlors with both automatic or manual detachment. In both cases, cows showing discomfort as the machine is removed is the result of pulling the cluster away from the teats while still under vacuum. In parlors with manual detachment, it is common for milkers to turn off the vacuum and immediately pull the machine off of the teats, without allowing for vacuum decay. Cows in such a barn may appear comfortable until the operators reach in to remove the machines and then start to kick as they anticipate the discomfort that they will shortly experience as the machine is pulled away too rapidly.

In parlors with improperly adjusted automatic detachers, cows know when they are done and will start to become fidgety as they anticipate removal at the end of milking and then kick when the machine starts to detach. In either case, these “cow- assisted” detachments are an important udder health and cow comfort issue. In barns where the detacher is properly adjusted, cows will learn that the detachment will not cause pain and will seldom kick. It is pleasant to watch a herd of cows where the detachers are operating properly. The machine simply falls away from the teats and the cows never move.

Stray voltage
Any discussion of cow comfort while milking would be incomplete without a brief reference to stray voltage. Stray voltage should always be considered when there continues to be a cow behavior problem even after all equipment and operator adjustments have been completed. Cows can definitely feel less than 0.5 volt and there is some indication that cows who have been exposed to stray voltage in the past are more sensitive. Stray voltage will contribute to reduced milk production, increased clinical mastitis and elevated SCC levels in the herd.

Weekly evaluation
Evaluating the comfort of dairy cows during their “most important 20 minutes” is a simple task that can and should be performed as part of normal parlor management. It should be done at least weekly with necessary adjustments completed as indicated to equipment and procedures. A critical eye should be applied to this evaluation because it is easy to become tolerant of certain cow behaviors just because they have always acted that way. Frequent kickoffs during milking may have occurred for so long that the milkers and management think that is normal.

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Similarly, cows kicking as the machine is removed is so common on dairies, most managers and milkers think this is the way it is supposed to happen. It may be necessary to visit other dairies and observe how things happen there for the purposes of comparison. It is also often helpful to employ independent udder health consultants to evaluate cow behavior during the milking process because they bring a fresh set of eyes to the process.

Cows have long memories and it may take up to several weeks for them to realize that something that was hurting before is no longer present. Once the cows respond to positive changes, milking becomes more pleasant for everyone involved. The added milk to be harvested and the better working environment makes this effort truly rewarding. This really is the “most important 20 minutes” on the dairy. PD

Martin R. Lee
Veterinarian
Idalee Veterinary Services

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