We’ve become accustomed to the fact that if cows aren’t comfortable in their environment, milk production, reproductive performance and overall herd health will suffer.

For instance, Grant et al. estimates 3.5 pounds of milk is lost for each additional hour standing, while a controlled herd study by ABS Technical Services in 2004 revealed an 11 percent conception rate decrease for animals with elevated locomotion scores when compared to normal animals within the same herd and time period.

In fact, cows respond to many factors in their environment every day and display signs that offer insight into past and future performance. By measuring and recording these signs against established goals, a “picture” of opportunities can be constructed to help identify where cow comfort and, ultimately, production and profitability can be improved. The challenge is for employees or dairy consultants to consistently monitor and interpret the multitude of data and prioritize improvement opportunities.

Pinpointing the opportunities

CowSigns, a new handheld software program from ABS Global, sorts through the mountains of data and gets decision makers much closer to being able to make important cow management decisions quicker and more effectively. This program, loaded onto a PDA, is a means for producers to evaluate several cow activity touch points based on real animal responses. Once the desired measure has been recorded within a defined group of animals, easy-to-read graphs are created instantly, displaying on the PDA the extent of potential opportunities. These results can be transmitted to an Internet site to report results and serve as a platform for continually monitoring cow environment responses.


Dr. Neil Michael, Director of Technical Services for ABS Global, shares how CowSigns helps.

“CowSigns provides both a visual picture and supporting data regarding how cows are responding to their environment, in addition to a tool to monitor progress and ensure objectives are being accomplished,” Michael says.

Cow response charting made simple

The new software works by recording a score for defined groups and numbers of animals. For consistency, the program displays pictures on the PDA for each score, providing a quick visual reference. Scores are recorded for each animal by tapping the appropriate number in “real time” as quickly as the observer can walk through the pen. The program simultaneously tabulates the data and shares pen information in the form of easy-to-read graphs, visually displaying if goals are being met.

CowSigns also provides producers a private website where the producer’s results can be viewed and compared to pooled data from other herds for comparison across a statistically significant herd population.

Cow activity touch points

“Through several years of experience and field exposure to thousands of cows every day, we’ve identified observations that are leading indicators to production and reproductive performance,” Michael says. “Our technical services team has developed CowSigns to include each of these critical areas. It then helps us to more consistently identify opportunities and prioritize areas of focus for implementation of solutions.”

The following are brief summaries of the touch points included in the new software and the general goals that ABS Technical Services uses.

Comfort index

The more time cows spend lying down, whether in a stall or in an open lot, the more milk they produce and the greater the likelihood for improved foot health. We recommend observing cows two to four hours after milking to evaluate lying activity. If 90 percent of the cows aren’t lying down in this time period, check stall size, bedding, shade or stocking density.

GOAL: 90 percent of cows lying down two hours after milking

Udder health

Research has shown that poorly conditioned teat ends have a major effect on milk quality and udder health, allowing bacteria to harbor and grow.

We suggest routinely checking teat ends and teat skin health. If 80 percent of the herd does not fall into a score of 1 or 2 in both categories, make sure milking procedures and routines are being followed to minimize machine on-time, and monitor vacuum levels and automatic take-off settings. Teat conditioning products containing chlorine dioxide can facilitate softening and exfoliation of teat skin, revealing healthy teat skin and teat ends.

GOAL: 80 percent of teat ends and teat skin with a score of 1 or 2

Cud chewing

Cud chewing indicates whether the ration offers enough effective fiber to keep the rumen microbes busy. We expect to see 60 percent of the high-producing animals chewing their cud two to four hours post-milking. If not, we take a look at the forage quality, especially particle length. Mixing time can also affect particle length, so we check to make sure forages aren’t being pulverized from mixing too long.

GOAL: 60 percent of cows chewing their cud

Turn time

It’s important to know total turn time since it affects how long your cows are on their feet and away from feed. Estimated total turn time is the elapsed time from opening to closing of adult high-producing pens multiplied by milking frequency.

GOAL: Less than 180 minutes per day

Manure scores

Manure scoring (scale of 1 to 5 from loose to firm) offers valuable information regarding rumen function, ration digestibility, water intake and possible feedbunk behavior. Although different lactation groups vary in suggested average manure score, consistency or lack of variation within the group is most important.

GOAL: Over 90 percent manure scores +/- 0.5 score from suggested average

Dry: 3.5 High: 3.0

Close: 3.0

Late: 3.5

Fresh: 2.5

Turn time

It’s important to know total turn time since it affects how long your cows are on their feet and away from feed. Estimated total turn time is the elapsed time from opening to closing of adult high-producing pens multiplied by milking frequency.

GOAL: Less than 180 minutes per day


The economic loss due to lame cows can be significant. Missed heats coupled with decreased intake leads to decreased milk production – all contributing to financial loss. Monitoring locomotion is the best way to know if it’s a problem. Action needs to be taken even at a score of 2. Locomotion scoring guides are available at http://www.zinpro.com/ASPX_Main/en-US/pdf/Locomotion%20scoring%20guide.pdf

GOAL: Less than 10 percent with scores of 3, 4 and 5

Cow cleanliness

Research at the University of Minnesota found a direct correlation between cow cleanliness and somatic cell count (SCC). The study found that the cleaner the udder, rear feet and legs, the lower the SCC. If 80 percent of your cows aren’t scoring a 1 or 2, refresh bedding more often and make sure stalls are sized properly.

GOAL: 80 percent with scores of 1 or 2

Body condition score

Cows that are overconditioned before calving may experience metabolic disorders, especially ketosis, as they try to utilize body fat when freshening. Cows that are too thin may not reach their peak milk potential and may have an energy deficiency, which can impact cow fertility. Balancing the ration for proper energy levels is a place to focus when it comes to getting cows bred back.

GOAL: Fresh cows: 2.25 – 3.25

High cows: 2.5 – 3.5

Late, dry and close cows: 3 – 4

All of these areas together indicate how your cows are responding to their environment. By prioritizing opportunities, recording and tracking improvements, you can expect your cows to give you measurable results – a clean bill of health, more milk production and better reproductive performance. PD

CowSigns is currently available to herds that work with ABS Global’s Technical Services team and its Reproductive Management System (RMS), a comprehensive management system for maximizing productivity. For more information about CowSigns contact ABSTS@absglobal.com

All in a day's work

High-producing animals need to spend 12 to 14 hours per day lying down, chewing their cud and making milk. In fact, recent research estimates high-producing Holstein cows lose an estimated 3.5 percent of milk daily for each additional hour of forced time on their feet. A cow normally spends 20 to 21 hours per day eating, socializing, drinking and resting. That leaves 3 to 4 hours per day for activities such as walking to and from the parlor, milking and other management tasks including heat detection, herdcheck and vaccination. If the duration of one of these latter management activities becomes extended, fundamental cow activities will decrease and result in reduced lying and eating time.

ABS Global Technical Services has created the tool shown above to estimate total time on feet with four on-farm inputs. It allows producers to identify and prioritize cow environment opportunities to improve cow health and performance on the dairy.

“By comparing the preferred activity to actual time being spent, we are easily able to prioritize the opportunities. This tool also allows us to continually monitor our progress within specific activities and how specific activities may reduce overall performance and health,” says ABS’ Director of Technical Services, Dr. Neil Michael.