Make Room to Groom

September 23, 2010 07:00 AM

Mechanical cow brushes help boost milk production and decrease mastitis – and cows love them

Bonus Content

YouTube video of cow using mechanical brushes


Photos of cows using mechanical brushes

Pennsylvania dairy producer Matthew Nealy has given his cows the brush-off, but they don’t mind. In fact, they’re loving it.

This past summer, the Nealys installed a swinging cow brush at their dairy. The dairy owners like the mechanical grooming device, but more importantly, the brush is a big hit with their cows. 

Designed to satisfy cows’ innate need to groom, cow brushes have been shown to boost cow comfort, calmness and even milk production. They also help decrease mastitis, a 2009 study shows (see sidebar below).

Swinging cow brush   232 we
Cows not only stay cleaner but put on quite a show when using the mechanical brushes. (DeLaval photo)

Nealy and his family milk 350 Holsteins 3X in a free-stall operation near Newville, Pa. They decided to install the cow brush when they upgraded their milking parlor. Working with equipment supplier DeLaval, the Nealys placed a swinging cow brush for their 2-year-olds in the barn’s loafing area.

“It makes the cows happier,” Nealy says. “There’s not a time that I haven’t seen them using it. We plan to add another one.”

The distinctive, yellow-bristled brushes help the Nealys’ cows scrape off the crust that builds up on their coats during the summer. The crust is the result of dried, limestone-laden water that is released through the dairy’s cooling misters. In the spring, the brushes help the cows shed their winter coats. 

At Spring Lawn Farm in Lancaster County, Pa., Josiah Garber and his family installed four swinging—as opposed to stationary—cow brushes for the 240 registered Holsteins they milk on four DeLaval robotic milkers known as Voluntary Milking Systems (VMS).

The Garbers located their cow brushes on the feed side of the pens to help achieve superior cow flow. “The cows eat, drink, wander over to the brushes and then go lay down,” Garber says.

The brushes not only help keep the cows clean but take the place of the wooden posts and barn equipment that cows often use for grooming. The devices play a public relations role, too.

“We have 1,000 people tour our dairy every year,” Garber says. “Our cow brushes are associated with good animal welfare.”

Nealy and Garber price their cow brushes at approxmately $3,000 each. They say it’s important to maintain a ratio of about 50 cows to one cow brush to avoid wearing out the brush. “We’ve had our brushes for three years and they still have 50% life left in them,” Garber says.

The swinging cow brushes are cylindrical, self-grooming devices usually mounted on a wall or post. They’re placed at shoulder level for the cows. The brushes start rotating on contact.

While cows most often use the brushes to groom around their heads and backs, they also use the devices to rub sensitive areas, especially around the eyes.

In July 2010, DeLaval reported that its swinging cow brush sales had topped the 30,000 mark worldwide. The cow brushes are part of DeLaval’s Sustainable Dairy Farming initiative, aimed at reducing farms’ environmental impact while improving milk production, farm profitability and the well-being of the people and animals involved.


Using a cow brush led to an average milk-production increase of 2.2 lb. per day in second-lactation cows, revealed a 2009 study by Ynte Schukken of Cornell University and G. Douglas Young of New York’s Spruce Haven Farm and Research Center.

The field study, performed at an 1,800-head New York dairy, also showed “a clear and significant difference in mastitis incidence as soon as the cow brushes were installed.”

Schukken isn’t clear why first-, third-lactation and older groups didn’t see an increase. “It may be that cows that walk to the brush are inclined to visit the feedbunk as well,” he says. He also hypothesizes that active cows utilize ketone more effectively, thus increasing feed intake.

Schukken speculates that the mastitis decrease also reflects the increased activity of cows that use the brush. Those cows may also spend less time in their stall and thereby expose themselves less to bacteria on the stall surface.

“Grooming behavior may lead to an overall cleaner skin in animals with access to the cow brush,” Schukken says. “Although the mammary gland itself is not groomed by the brush, the tail and hind areas are groomed, which may result in lower exposure of the mammary gland due to general reduction of dirt.”

Back to news



Spell Check

David Gremmels
Central Point, OR
9/4/2017 05:07 PM

  We have found the Delaval brushes to be a hazard to our herd asked them to be decommissioned.


Corn College TV Education Series


Get nearly 8 hours of educational video with Farm Journal's top agronomists. Produced in the field and neatly organized by topic, from spring prep to post-harvest. Order now!


Market Data provided by
Brought to you by Beyer