Cow comfort … what does it mean?

Date of publication : 4/1/2009
Source : University of Minnesota Dairy Extension

When I think of the word "comfort" I think of a quiet, relaxing environment where I can be productive without a lot of stress, where I can have what I need to eat and drink, where I can rest comfortably and sleep soundly, where I am not threatened in any way, where I can be healthy and not exposed to a lot of disease-causing organisms, and so on (or I could think of sitting on a comfortable chair, under a shade tree, on a beautiful tropical sandy beach with a waiter bringing me a fruit cocktail whenever I want... oh, I guess that is way too much comfort). Without running the risk of anthropomorphism (now, that is a word!), i.e, assume that animals think and feel as humans do, we could say that cows' comfort (or one might prefer a broader term such as well-being or welfare) has to do with their basic needs. These needs include shelter/housing, care, cleanliness, appropriate handling, feed, water, social structure, consistency... all things that would make their lives more comfortable and result in less stress. Less stress enhances the immune system, which reduces the incidence of disease, which improves productivity, which enhances profitability. Therefore, cow comfort/well-being/welfare (these terms are used interchangeably throughout this article) directly affects the farm's profitability bottom line. Cow comfort also affects the public perception of the dairy industry.

In recent years, more research has been done and more observations have been made on cow comfort in the U.S. and Canada. We have learned more about designing stalls and barns that meet cows' natural behavioral needs. A very good flowchart for evaluating free stalls was developed by Wisconsin workers. For tie stalls, less information is available, but there are some general recommendations based on video observations by Neil Anderson, Extension Dairy Veterinarian from Ontario. Of course, cow well-being is more than just stall design and we know there is yet a lot more to learn about this very important dairy management topic.

A major dairy cattle welfare problem today is lameness, which leads to premature culling, impaired reproductive performance, decreased milk yield and costly treatment. Lameness hurts, and pain is something we need to reduce in order to improve cow well-being. Researchers Cook and Nordlund in Wisconsin recently reported an average lameness prevalence of 19.6% for tie stall herds and 25.3% for free stall herds (15 herds each). Lameness tends to be a greater problem in free stall barns, where cows' hooves are on concrete and slurry for long periods of time. We are currently summarizing data from a study of 50 free stall herds in Minnesota. Our preliminary results indicate a similar average prevalence of approximately 25% of cows lame in the high production group.

Is it acceptable that one-fourth of our cows cannot walk naturally and without pain? What can be done about it? Is there a prevalence target? Cook suggests the goal should be less than 15% lameness prevalence for well-managed herds. Could it be better than that? It appears that type of stall surface can have a major effect on the prevalence of lameness. Wisconsin researchers recently compared the behavior of lame and non-lame cows housed either in mattress free stalls or sand free stalls. The researchers reported average lameness prevalence was 11.1% for sand herds vs. 24% for mattress herds (6 herds each). The researchers selected 10 lame and 10 non-lame cows in each herd and evaluated their daily activity patterns (time spent lying, standing, perching, eating, etc.) using video photography. They found that lame cows in sand stalls have similar activity patterns as non-lame cows and they spent a similar amount of time lying down per day. On the other hand, cows in mattress herds spent more time standing in the stall than cows in sand herds, which impacted their daily lying time. There are some implications on cow housing and care that come from these findings.

Now, some food for thought... You might have seen previous articles about compost barns (a.k.a. composting bedded packs) in these U of M Dairy Connection columns. As a result, hopefully you have some concept of what is meant by a compost barn. One recommendation to reduce lameness, especially in mattress barns, is to have a special needs pen for lame cows. I suggest that a compost barn/pen would be a great option. I like the idea of compost barns for all cows, but I understand that depending on the size of the dairy, that does not make economic sense. But what about having a compost pen for a special group of cows?

By Marcia Endres, Extension Animal Scientist
University of Minnesota Extension - Dairy Connection Articles (adapted)

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