As the Christmas season gets into full swing it`s time to share the spirit of the season with the hard-working cows in the barn. Very soon we will look back on all the numbers that brought the dairy operation success in the past year.  Genetics, feed, health and environment all contribute to the bottom line.  Cow comfort can represent up to 30%.  Sometimes it receives the least attention.  We can`t afford to throw away $3 of every $10 on an average $4500 annual revenue per cow. In a 100 cow herd that is disregarding $135,000.  That doesn`t work at Christmas time or any other time of the year.


When dairymen invest in something that improves the comfort of their cows, it pays itself back. The cows are the one line item that cannot be dispensed with.  Anything done to improve the working environment and how the cows operate in it is a win-win.   It is impossible to send your herd on a vacation to a warmer climate. Even if you could, they probably wouldn’t perform well in the hotter conditions.  Nevertheless there are ways to give them a holiday from the stresses of their living current living quarters.  You have to start by considering everything — from bedding surface and stall size to ventilation and lighting.  New products and technologies are continually being introduced and developed. It is up to each breeder to find innovative solutions to get the most out of the dairy operation.  In this win-win situation your bottom line will celebrate too!


Cow comfort is one area of dairy operation management where it pays to go to great lengths to provide optimal cow comfort since it affects not only herd health, but their production and, most importantly, their reproduction!  Here are some comforting  Christmas season reminders:

  • The weather outside is frightful. But the barn is so delightful. A combination of fans and mechanical curtain walls play a critical role in ventilating some barns. The fans and curtain walls are engaged by a thermostat, which ensures the barn is kept at a constant temperature. There are many possible systems but the final result is fresh, moving air.
  • Let there be Light. Automatic controls to regulate the lighting system will ensure that cattle receive 16-18 hours of full light per day.
  • Lying All Snug in Their Beds: There are many options – sand, waterbeds, and straw packs etcetera. The goal is to provide a clean, dry surface for the cows to lie on.
  • Walking in a Winter Wonderland:  While it’s unlikely that your herd is walking through snowdrifts, it is important that the surface they walk on is clean, slip-free and not so hard that it causes leg injuries.
  • Everything is Shining and Bright:  In free stall barns the brushes clean the cow, remove old hair, and studies have shown they increase blood flow. We also think the brushes provide a bit of fun for the cows.
  • It’s Christmas Cow Party Time: Dairy nutrition is a separate discussion on its own but cow comfort is impacted by hygiene and the design of access to clean feed and water 24/7.  If you want your party eggnog you may want to provide ceramic tile feeding areas and always, always make sure that head gates or feed access don’t result in injury.


Of course milking is the key activity that takes place on a dairy farm. We know how that effects that milking.  How does it affect the milk-producing team? When you look over your herd from their viewpoint, would you be on the naughty or nice list?

Let’s take that a step further and look at milking systems such as the move to robotic milkers.  Here is another new technology that also pays big dividends in the area of cow comfort.  Promoted as “letting cows be cows” robots don’t drive the milking schedule, the cows do.  They eat when they want. They milk when they’re ready.  They drink and sleep as they need to. The robotic system makes sure that milking is done as needed. Cows enter the robotic system where their identification is scanned and it is confirmed whether she needs to be milked or not.  If she doesn’t need milked, a gate opens and the cow leaves the area. If she is ready to be milked, the milking cups are automatically attached. The entire process takes approximately 8 minutes, and the cow is fed food pellets while she’s waiting.  All pluses from the comfort side of the pipeline.


Before you make the decision to invest significant dollars in increasing cow comfort you need to know exactly what you need.  It is ironic, that we all look at our cows every day but are we really seeing them in terms of how comfortable they are in the environment we are providing for them? There are several checkpoints that should be on your comfort checklist. Once you have checked them often enough that they become second nature, you will have an idea of what issues might need resolving. You need to be like Santa and make a list and check it much more often than twice.  Here are some things to start with:

  • Locomotion.  An unbalanced walk or a curved back could indicate lameness or digestion problems.
  • Body Temperature. A cow should have a temperature of 38 to 39 °C. Cold ears might indicate milk fever or blood circulation problems.
  • Foot or leg injuries. Heel erosion or skinned hocks are mainly caused by problems with bedding or bedding materials, incorrectly adjusted barn equipment and/or hoof infection.
  • Cud chewing: A cow should ruminate for seven to 10 hours per day, ruminating 40 to 70 times on a cud. Taking less time indicates inadequate rations.
  • Contented: A contented cow looks alert and powerful, with a glossy skin and a full stomach.
  • Neck injuries: A swollen neck is mainly caused by a feed fence being too low or incorrectly adjusted barn equipment.
  • Hoof health:  Healthy cows stand straight and still while eating. Tipping or walking with a lame gait are signs of discomfort. This can be caused by bad rations, poor floors or lack of hoof treatment. Always look underneath hoofs during hoof trimming for extra signs and judge hoof health with locomotion scoring.
  • Respiration:  Normal breathing ranges from 10 to 30 breaths a minute for a cow. Faster breathing indicates heat stress or pain and fever.


One of the best indicators that you are providing your herd with optimum cow comfort can be seen by observing how often they are lying down. It takes high levels of endurance to meet the stresses of high performance dairy production. As cattle caregivers it is our job to provide the highest level of comfort for them to perform.  What does comfort have to do with performance?  The real question is “How much does discomfort affect results?” If your herd could talk to you about their comfort levels, what would they say? Would they compliment the soft, bedded freestalls, the wide alley ways, and the roominess of the feedbunk? Or would they be more likely to mention that they spend more time competing for feed than they do eating it and resting afterward? Are they interacting with their own age group or are they being edged out by older cows? Don’t be caught under the haystack fast asleep when it’s your cows that should be resting.


In a study that was done in Sweden several years ago, herds that had more free stalls than cows got as much as 5 lbs more milk per cow per day.  Other studies have reported similar results of increased milk production when stocking density is decreased and the cows have more time to rest.  Generally speaking, herds that have less stocking density in relations to stalls will have more available feed bunk space. We measure the milk they produce, we classify the conformation they achieve and we use Genomics to plan their breeding. We say, “We do just as well as everybody else.”  AH! There’s the rub! Is that good enough or even true? Studies were done in Spain of several herds that were of the same genetic merit that were fed the exact same ration. The only factor that was variable was the management and housing of the cows. There was a 29-pound milk production difference when comparing the farms. How the cows were handled and housed accounted for the 29 pound difference! Multiply that by herd size and you understand how cow comfort really impacts your herd profitability.


While it is fun to prepare for the holiday season, our real dairy work must go on and taking cow comfort into consideration can bring our passion for cows and constantly improving dairy management onto the calendar. The Bullvine joins cow lovers everywhere in looking forward to a happy holiday barn and home season this December and, even more importantly, “A HAPPY MOO YEAR!


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