5 tests to assess your dairy herd’s welfare and comfort

Farmers and stock workers can trick themselves into thinking everything is satisfactory in the cow shed but cows don’t lie. Veterinarian and CowSignals instructor Owen Atkinson of Dairy Veterinary Consultancy explores five techniques to assessing cow comfort at herd level.

As part of the AHDB’s optimal dairy systems initiative, Owen Atkinson and other CowSignals instructors have been reminding dairy operators running housed herds on how to assess whether cows are comfortable.

Below is some advice on what to look for.

What is CowSignals?

Started by Dutch vet Joep Driessen and Jan Hulsen, Cow Signals is a training programme to educate farm staff and technicians into a holistic approach to cow management, focused on prevention rather than treatment.

By applying science and research, the CowSignals system uses checklists and targets to make stockmanship more objective by quantifying herd comfort and cow contentment.

It is taught by over 400 trainers working in 50 countries.

Find out more about CowSignals here

Read more: Cubicle design – an in-depth look at cow comfort

Are cows lasting? Calculate lifetime daily yield

Before even stepping in the shed and seeing a cow, a calculation can flag up problems. Working out lifetime daily yield (LDY) brings together production, age at first calving, calving interval and longevity – which relates to the main culling issues of fertility, lameness and mastitis.

Calculating LDY requires knowledge of average lactation yield, average age at first calving, calving interval and number of lactations.

A rough UK average for housed herds is 3.3 lactations and at 9,000 litres a year this equates to 29,700 litres a life. This needs to be divided by the number of days alive.

Benchmarks

  • 12 litres/day is about average
  • 15-16 litres/day is good
  • Excellent farms are achieving 20+litres/day

Work out your LDY

For example, if calving at 24 months (730 days) with a 400-day calving interval and 3.3 lactations (1,320 days) this is 2,050 days. 29,700 litres/2,050 days = 14.4 litres per day of life.

Are at least 75% of the cows eating or ruminating?

Ruminating behaviour is a key thing to watch for in a herd; both how much time they spend ruminating in general and the number of chews per cud.

Cows will ruminate up to 9-10 hours a day and should make more than 60 chews/cud. Fewer chews may indicate insufficient fibre in the diet but it shouldn’t be viewed in isolation, more as part of building up an overall picture.

Rumination drops when approaching calving and increases again once the cow is calved and back in the milking herd.

Benchmarks

  • 8-9 hours a day should be spent ruminating
  • This rumination time should be spent lying down
  • Less than 6 hours rumination time/day is considered low
  • Cows chew about 60 chews per cud (55-75)

Work out your ruminating/eating %

e.g. 210 cows in a shed, of which 140 are ruminating or eating? 140/210 = 0.666666 x 100 = 66.6% Something may need investigating.

Are at least 85% of the cows in the stalls lying down?

Calculate the cubicle comfort index (CCI), which can indicate if there are problems with stalls. If 136 of your cows are in contact with the stalls, then at least 116 should be lying down.

Standing behaviour, lying half across stalls into passageways, standing with the back feed in the passage ways and not lying straight could indicate issues with stall dimension, bedding type, bedding suitability, bedding depth or cleanliness.

Cows stood in passageways for long periods of time are a bad sign. They could have lameness developing or be worried about going past a dominant cow, which means there may not be enough space in the shed.

Benchmarks

  • If a cow isn’t eating, drinking, socialising, being milked or walking to do one of these activities it should be lying down
  • Cows need to lie for at least 10 hours/day and 12-14 is ideal
  • Cows only sleep 20 minutes/day but lying is important

Work out your cubicle comfort index (CCI)

  • 210 cows in a shed, of which 139 are in contact with stalls, of which 121 are lying down.
  • 121/139 =  0.87 x 100 = 87%  This is good, but can it be improved to 90% or more?

Is the group even for height and weight, colour and shine, body condition, rumen fill and cleanliness?

Have a good look at the cows at the extreme ends of the herd. A tall cow might struggle lying down or using feeders and a small cow might be bullied – are they showing signs that they are struggling in the herd e.g. mobility issues, low body condition?

Benchmarks

  • A rough target of 85% is again useful to assess whether there is much variation in the herd.
  • Are less than 15% of the herd extreme?
  • Ideally, 90-100% of cows should be clean, have 2-3.5 body condition scores and be 3 or more for rumen fill scoring.

Working out cleanliness and rumen-fill scoring

  • Cleanliness scoring: AHDB dairy uses a very simple 0,1,2 scoring system looking at flank, rear legs and udder. 0 = clean, 1= 10-15cm (hand) of muck 2 = 40cm (forearm)
  • Rumen fill scoring: A 1-5 system in which one is very empty and 5 is very full. 1-2 score cows have not eaten in the last 24 hours. Rumen fill scores should be taken from the cow’s left-hand side (it’s where the rumen is), looking for the space behind the last rib, beneath the transverse process and in front of the band of muscle that is seen from the hook bone.

See the AHDB advice on rumen fill scoring (PDF)

What is the muck consistency? Is there undigested forage?

Just by crouching down you can see if grain, maize corns or grass silage is still present and obviously undigested in the slurry. High yielding cows have high feed demands and feed passes through these animals quickly as a result.

Use 100ml cups to assess fibre digestion in dung. Buy a kitchen sieve for the job. Measure 100ml of dung into the sieve, massage it through the sieve under a flow of tap water and put it back in the 100ml cup to assess its volume and fibrous content.

Read more: How to carry out muck assessments

Benchmarks

  • Listen – manure dropping from a cow should sound like a hand clap and not a round of applause
  • Look – are cow pats visible and holding a shape off the ground 2-3cm deep? This is a sign of good, firm dung
  • Cup contents should reduce by at least 70% in well digested samples
  • If there is more than 30ml of matter left, it could be worth investigating

Freedoms of pasture in the barn

Important to assessing your herd is an understanding of the six freedoms cows have when they are at pasture. They are air, water, feed, space, rest and light.

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