There has been much written recently – and rightly so – about the importance of cow comfort. Winter is on the whole a period of total confinement for the herd, restricting some of the freedoms cows enjoy at summer pasture.
So now is the moment, before they come in, to consider cows’ daily needs, the most important of which is the need to lie and ruminate for between 12 and 14 hours a day.
Cows that lay for this period are healthier and more productive, while an uncomfortable cow will lie less and stand more. However, there are two constraints on lying time. One is enough actual time with in a 24-hour period to lie down, and the other is the comfort of their environment or cubicles.
Milking cows lead busy lives. If one takes the 14 hours out of the 24 hours in a day for lying time this leaves just 10 hours for milking, eating, drinking and socialising. It is worth considering that a cow needs six hours to feed, leaving four hours a day for milking and social activity.
The best way of creating more time for lying is to look at ways at shortening the “turn time”. (The time taken from getting cows out of the pen to milk to returning them to the pen). Really, this needs to be done within one-and-a-half hours to allow ample time for the cows’ other needs.
Measures such as using a backing gate, getting individual groups in for milking one at a time, ensuring pen scraping and feeding is done during milking so as not to hold up the return of cows and not leaving cows to stand for half an hour for the teat canal to close before access to the pens all help to cut the turn time.
The other period that can be made more efficient is the time cows need to feed. Shorter feeding times allow cows to lie for longer. By creating the correct feed bunk environment, such as space a cow (60cm a cow), trough height, foot and neck rail comfort and well mixed ad-lib TMR all help to shorten the time at the trough.
There has been recent interest in the use of rubberised flooring at the feed trough which not only encourages feed intakes, but also decreases lameness. However, drawbacks include preference of the rubberised surface by dominant cows, resulting in bullying, and cows lying on the rubberised flooring instead of cubicles.
Cows like an environment which is dry, clean, well-bedded and airy, with enough sure-footed loafing space for behavioural needs, such as social interaction and bulling expression. Straw yards provide the optimal winter housing, but are expensive to maintain and predispose to mastitis and cell count problems, which account for their declining use.
It is fair to say cubicles of the wrong dimensions and insufficient bedding have a profound effect on decreasing lying time, resulting in increased lameness, mastitis and weight loss, with subsequent knock-on effects on milk yield and fertility. A rough rule of thumb is that cubicles should be 1.2m wide and 2.2m long, with a further 1m of lunge space in front.
Research trials which have given cows different options have shown they prefer cubicles with neck rails sufficiently far in front to allow them to stand with all four feet on the cubicle and without brisket boards or, when brisket boards are used, they are to be no greater than 15cm in height.
Sand and well-bedded mattresses are chosen in preference to mats. An interesting study recently showed cows will lie an average of 13 minutes less a day for every inch of sand lower than the standard 8in depth and also, given the choice between damp bedding and dry, they will choose dry bedding. Studies have also shown lying time reduces with increased stocking density. Therefore, current guidelines are for 10% more cubicles than cows.
The best advice this winter is to make time to just observe cows in their sheds, paying close attention to health issues such as lameness, hock lesions and cubicle occupancy. After all, a “comfortable” cow will be a more productive cow, as she will be healthier, get in calf quicker and produce more milk.