Time is money. According to Dr. Rick Grant of W.H. Miner Research Institute in Chazy, New York, this holds true even for the modern dairy cow.

During a Penn State Extension “Technology Tuesday” webinar presentation held Nov. 25, 2014, Grant joined extension engineer Dan McFarland in an effort to bring current perspectives in cow comfort and management environment to dairy producers and other industry professionals.

The presentation spoke to the idea that physical and social environments define the feeding environment and play a key role in the productivity of dairy cows. McFarland and Grant also offered a variety of ways in which managers can positively impact their herd through management strategies.

“As a nutritionist with an active interest in behavior, I see the feeding environment as critical to [cows] leading healthy, productive lives,” Grant said.

Just as important as providing a high-quality feed is creating what Grant calls the “ultimate dining experience” for cows. This includes a well-formulated, palatable ration; ensuring feed and water are available at all times; providing adequate bunk space; and avoiding overstocking, which, in turn, lessens competition for feed access. Managers should also eliminate restrictions on resting activity that’s often caused by overstocking or excessive time outside the pen. And finally, combine each of these factors into a profitable, productive dairy cow.

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Grant affirms that this “ultimate dining experience,” which truly encompasses all aspects of a cow’s physical, social and feeding environments, will serve an even greater cause: eliminating the need for cows to behave aggressively at the feed bunk. Grant’s presentation notes that a cow will willingly exert more than 500 pounds of pressure against a feed barrier (such as rail or headlock between her and the feedstuff) while eating – even though studies show that only 225 pounds of exerted pressure can cause tissue damage. In short, competition for feed forces cows to potentially harm themselves in order to receive what they need.

“Over time, poor feeding management will force cows to become less aggressive feeders, which will actually harm intake and therefore productivity,” Grant said. “As managers, this is something we should be careful to avoid.”

Grant suggests monitoring feed barriers and taking notice of changes that need to be made. As McFarland noted, feed barriers should be approximately 48 inches high and between 8 and 12 inches forward. In the case of a Nebraskan dairy farm, a time-lapse photo showed the difference between the feed barrier as TMR was delivered and the shape of the rail 30 minutes after the feed had been delivered. Cows pushing against the rail to reach the remaining TMR caused the rail to bend under their force – an image Grant calls an “indicator of the net effect” of the cows’ responses – something managers on all dairies should be responsive to.

“This was just one example of how a farmer came to realize that he didn’t have a nutritional problem on his dairy; he in fact had a feed management problem,” Grant said.

The presentation provided research that showed overstocking resulted in more than 50 percent more switches in feeding location along the bunk. While this fact in and of itself is relatively unimportant, the real issue lies in the “social turmoil” created by a cow’s grazing behaviors.

“Grazing behavior is wonderful when the cows are outside on pasture, but when indoors, it serves to do nothing more than create social turmoil at the feed line,” Grant said. “When cows are moving up and down the feed bunk in search of high-quality feed, they displace other cows along the way. When competition exists, some cows will always be getting shortchanged.”

In the second part of the presentation, McFarland notes that cow comfort is, in fact, quantifiable. Factors including locomotion scoring, hock and knee assessments, hours spent resting, and calculated stocking density both in the pen and at the feed bunk lend themselves to the development of a more effective management regime.

A study conducted by the University of California – Davis concluded that 90 percent of a farm’s dairy cattle should maintain a locomotion score of 1 or 2, while research from Cornell University has shown that more than 95 percent of cows in a herd should score a 1 on the hock assessment chart, with little to no swelling and no hair missing on the hock. Variations on these numbers suggest room for potential improvements in management routines.

Do time budgets really matter? Both Grant and McFarland presented study after study as evidence to the claim that time is one of the most important assets a dairy cow has. The ideal time budget for a dairy cow in a freestall requires five hours of eating, 12 to 14 hours resting, 30 minutes drinking, and between two and a half and three and a half hours “milking” or of time spent outside of the pen. Cows in tiestalls have needs that differ only slightly.

McFarland calls to attention the cyclical nature of a cow and her behavior. A cow’s routine is relatively similar from day to day, and this consistency provides opportunity for more effective productivity, since the cow has time to accomplish everything she needs to each day. The manager’s responsibility, then, lies in aiding the cow to make the most efficient use of her time.

How can this be accomplished? According to Grant and McFarland, dairy managers have the responsibility to provide quality feed, groom stalls, ensure that feed and water are easily accessible by all cows at all times, and responsibly monitor both stocking density and time away from the pen, both of which have the capability of limiting resting time, feeding time and access to feed and water.

“It’s the caregiver’s responsibility to provide good access and a comfortable feeding experience,” McFarland said. PD

Visit the Penn State Extension website to watch this webinar recording and to view other archived or upcoming dairy webinars.

Read a related article, “Increase milk production by increasing feed availability.”

Callie Curley is a student at Penn State University – Berks campus, studying communications.