Through Her Eyes A cow''s view of freestall comfort differs from yours

February 4, 2010 08:03 AM


Building wider stalls, adding bedding to mattresses and keeping bedding dry improve cows' lying time.

When cows are not in the milking parlor, they should be eating or lying down, so the popular thinking goes.

Unfortunately, no one has explained that to the cows, say Marina von Keyserlingk and Dan Weary, professors and researchers in the Animal Welfare Program at the University of British Columbia.

"Even when cows have access to well-designed stalls, they spend only about 12 hours a day lying down,” von Keyserlingk and Weary say. "Cows spend the other 12 hours on their feet, and we need to take this into account in designing housing.”

Building wider stalls, adding more bedding to mattresses and keeping bedding dry improve cows' lying time, the researchers note. They have also found that high stocking densities at the feedbunk increase aggressive competition and keep subordinate cows away from feed. In particular, pregnant cows are crowded out at the feedline, limiting their intake. "Intake is a huge determinant of how she'll cope after calving,” the researchers say.

Physical barriers, such as headlocks and feed stalls, can help lessen competition at the feedline and increase feeding time. Doubling feeding space from 20" to 40" per cow decreased aggressive interactions during feeding by half in a 2004 study. This allowed cows to boost feeding activity by 24% at peak feeding times, an effect that was strongest for subordinate animals.

Research conducted in 2006 shows that providing additional partitions, or feed stalls, between adjacent cows provides additional protection while feeding and improves access to feed. It also results in less aggression and fewer competitive displacements, particularly for subordinate cows.

Research has shown that cows won't use certain stalls in a pen, while seemingly identical stalls are occupied more than 80% of the available time. Von Keyserlingk and Weary point to a 2003 study in which stalls in the row closest to the feed alley were occupied 41% more frequently than more distant stalls. In addition, stalls located in the center of each row were used 12% more often than those located on the periphery of the row, such as near a wall or fence.

This suggests that stalls farther from the feedbunk or on the periphery are less desirable to cows, perhaps because they need to walk farther or navigate past physical obstacles, such as narrow alleys, or social impediments, such as dominant cows, on their way to those stalls.

This may partly explain the reduced user satisfaction and lower production in barns with six and four rows as compared to barns with two and three rows.

"The fact that stalls within a pen vary in their popularity suggests that stall availability from the cows' perspective is not the same as from the producers' perspective,” say von Keyserlingk and Weary. "What looks to us as 1:1 cow-to-stall stocking density may seem considerably worse to the cows if some stalls are unacceptable.”

Bonus content:

Watch Drs. von Keyserlingk and Weary in "Finding a Cow's Comfort”


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