Building design is the main limiting factor to cow performance, according to Genus’s John Cook.
“Cows need regular routine, so anything preventing her from expressing normal behaviour will result in sub-optimal performance.”
And the biggest building design problem in the UK influencing performance is trough space a cow, he says. “It is a common misconception stocking density is about space a cow, when in fact it is more about trough space a cow.”
“At certain times of day, particularly at sunrise, sunset and after milking, all cows will want to feed at once and it is essential trough space allows for this.”
The effect trough space will have on cow performance will vary depending on stage of lactation, with close to calving cows and fresh calvers particularly vulnerable.
“Restricting dry matter intakes at this crucial stage, three weeks before and three weeks after calving will have a knock on effect on conception rates throughout the subsequent lactation,” says Mr Cook.
During this critical time, when most damage can be made, cows should be provided with 76cm (30in) of trough space. After this period, 61cm (24in) a cow for high yielders in early lactation is sufficient.
Close attention must also be paid to feed barrier design, he says. “A cow will place three to four times the amount of pressure needed to cause tissue damage on her neck to reach feed, so it is essential to minimise the potential effects.”
Ensuring the neck rail is positioned 10cm (4in) forward from the post is just one way of improving feed barrier dimensions. “Properly installing headlocks can also improve intakes because cows feel more secure – headlocks only don’t work when stocking density is not right,” stresses Mr Cook.
Management is also key to getting a system working well, says Paul Henman, Promar consultant.
“You could have a wonderful, well designed feed face, but when feed is not pushed up regularly enough, you won’t get the performance.”
Space a cow is also important, he says. “Occasionally I will visit farms where cubicles have been added in, but there are not enough cross passages.”
“Every situation is different, but in some cases adding a loafing area can reduce space problems in the shed.”
However, when there is a dedicated cubicle house and no more additional space, knocking out three cubicles at the end and middle of a cubicle run could be beneficial.
“Cubicles should be arranged in banks of 15-20 with cross over passages between.
“Blind end passages should be avoided to prevent bullying. Equally poor space a cow and insufficient cubicle spaces will mean smaller cows are outcompeted for feed and lying space. This will ultimately affect intakes and yields.”
The biggest trick missed on most dairy farms is cow waiting time, says Mr Cook. “As soon as a cow is waiting more than three hours a day to be milked, milk production and reproduction will be severely compromised.”
Waiting in the collecting yard disrupts time budgets for eating and lying, however, sensible cow grouping can limit this waiting period. “Ideally a cow should spend 5-6 hours a day eating when housed and a minimum of 12 hours a day lying.”
To maximise cow flow, ideally cows should be moving towards the light as they go into the parlour. Installing fans in the collecting yard can also improve cow flow on exit.
“When cows are heat stressed in the collecting yard, they become hot and bothered and as soon as they step out into the cool after milking they stand still to cool down. This in itself disrupts cow flow.”
Providing a comfortable lying area is important so cows are able to fulfil lying time budgets.
“Management is better than measurement when it comes to cubicles – cows are capable of lying in poor cubicles if they are modified accordingly.” And often it is simply a case of adding more bedding.
“Our Cow Signs work has identified the UK average comfort index is about 65%. By increasing this to 80%, so cows are lying for longer, there is the potential to gain an extra two litres of milk a cow a day.”