Cow Comfort: An Art of Compromise


The cow comfort role in nutrition and bottom-line production is often talked about, but more often, it is about the compromises.

The economics of the dairy farm is driven by the number of cows and the amount of milk that leaves the farm in the tank truck. If a practice means more milk is sold resulting in a larger milk check, everything else is a tradeoff. Therein lies the “cow comfort” compromise.

Recently a client completed constructing and populating a new barn. In anticipation of the new facility, he had intentionally over-crowded his existing facility to have cows ready for the new barn. Once the cows were moved and all the overcrowding was corrected, he was amazed by the almost immediate response in production.

The 5- to 7-lb. milk response certainly was noticed, but the cost of the new facility was also an attention getter. Therein starts the conversation on the compromises.
What are the compromises?  More milk is almost always the result of increased feed intake. To a cow, that means more time at the bunk, but it also means access to lots of water when she wants it and quiet time to lay down in comfort and do what cows do best, ruminate.

A lot of focus has been on stall design and management. The goal of some of our clients is to see all the cows in the group lying in a stall and chewing their cud at the same time. That usually requires a few extra stalls to prevent competition for stall space.

And, if they all lie down together, they will all want to eat at the same time. If headlocks are used, there needs to be enough spaces at the bunk so every cow can easily find a space. The bottom line is more time at the bunk results in more feed intake.

The same goes for water. Often, when one cow drinks, others will also want to drink. Having lots of room around the water tanks and tanks with enough reserve to allow for lots of cows to drink lots of water is crucial.

Minimizing parlor holding times and in sorting pens become important priorities in barn design and management. Ventilation in both summer’s heat and winter’s closed barns to ensure a good, comfortable air supply reduces cow discomfort.

On some farms, the cow comfort compromise is to pull out all the discomfort stops for the high and transition groups but then allow overcrowding and other issues in the lower production and tail end groups.
That may be a counterproductive protocol. It is the timid cow, the cow with impaired mobility or the cow that may be compromised for physical or physiological reasons that has the most reduction in production. She becomes more predisposed to metabolic and other production limiting conditions.
In the end, the average in those comfort-compromised groups may be minor. But the effect on a few cows may be significant and have longer term consequences.

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