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Cow comfort economics 101

Rick Grant Published on 09 October 2012

This past year, I have given numerous talks on the importance of managing for cow comfort. We know that the on-farm management environment explains over half of the variation among farms in milk production. Increasingly, producers are realizing that modest investments in housing, or changes in their cow management routines, can pay large dividends in greater cow health and performance.

As we look to the future and the continuing volatility in feed and milk prices, we need to sharpen our focus on the consistent economic benefits of improved cow comfort – information we can literally “take to the bank(er)!”



A combination of controlled research and field case studies are providing a substantial and growing body of information on the expected cow responses to specific changes in the management environment. Here are some of the most economically important relationships:

  • Stalls per cow (1.7 lbs per cow per day per 0.1 increase in stall availability), feeding for refusals (+3.5 lbs per cow per day) and feed pushups (+8.7 lbs per cow per day) are all positively related to herd milk production.
  • Minimizing time outside the pen is the key to optimal time budgeting. Meeting time budget requirement for resting results in greater milk yield (five to eight lbs per day more) and lower incidence of lameness.
  • Expect two to 3.5 lbs per cow per day more milk whenever cow comfort is improved that results in one more hour of resting time.
  • When cows are chronically deprived of adequate resting opportunity, they will also sacrifice eating time and the potential for feed consumption in a 3.5:1 ratio.
  • Heat stress abatement needs to begin at THI = 68, occur during the dry and the lactating phase, and will result in greater feed intake and milk yield (average of 10+ lbs per cow per day), less lameness and a healthier transition period.
  • Commingling first-calf heifers with older cows leads to loss of resting activity, rumination and milk yield. Plan on an approximate 10 percent loss in milk for the heifers. When stocking rate is increased, the negative effect is even more pronounced even at low levels of overcrowding (such as 110 to 115 percent of stalls and headlocks).
  • Improving the comfort of a stall, according to numerous case studies, should improve milk yield (three to 14 lbs per cow per day), lower turnover rates (-6 to -13 percent), lower somatic cell count (-37,000 to -102,000) and reduce lameness (-15 to -20 percent).
  • Optimizing the feeding environment will promote aggressive feeding behavior and greater dry matter intake which translates into more milk production (for Holsteins, one lb of dry matter intake translates into two lbs of milk).
  • Lameness results in a loss of nearly 2,000 lbs per cow per year of milk annually, greater culling rate and reduced fertility.
  • As bunk space decreases from 24 to 12 inches per cow, percentage of cows pregnant by 150 days in milk decreases from 70 to 35 percent. Also, conception rates are reduced with higher stocking densities. Given the value of a pregnancy is approximately $300, this is an important, and often overlooked, effect of overstocking.

The list could go on but it is clear that there are very real economic consequences associated with improvement (or neglect) of cow comfort. Research makes it clear that there is a predictable link between management, cow behavioral responses and productivity and health. Now is the time to take advantage of what we know about improving cow comfort to improve the farm’s bottom line. PD

Grant is president of the Miner Institute. Excerpts from Miner Institute Farm Report, December 2011.