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Dairy Cow Pen Moves – Better Penmanship. Better Results.

With three children who have had significant home moves in the last three years, I am very receptive to the idea that moving dairy cattle — although a fact of life — has impacts far beyond providing them with a simple change of scenery. Therefore, when I read the March 2014 issue of the Miner Institute Farm Report it seemed to speak to something I could relate to. Having said that, moving animals from pen to pen, or barn to pasture is necessary and, therefore, is not an option.  Or is it?

The Pitfalls of Too Many Moves

For the typical dairy animal, her farm residency may include six to eight pen moves per lactation not counting the sick or hospital pen (Read more: Hospital Pens for Better or Worse).  Depending on farm size and management strategy, during her lactation cycle an average cow might be housed in a fresh pen, high production pen, low production pen, far-off dry pen, and close-up pen. From a management standpoint, there are good reasons for these necessary moves but, until recently, very little attention has been paid to how cows adapt to these moves.  It is important to know how they are affected by stocking density. The main conclusion is that all pen changes are stressful for the animal.

How To Minimize Pen Moves

Current recommendations for managing the transition of dry cows or heifers into lactation would include the following moves (and duration of stay):

  1. From a lactating group into a far-off dry group (5 to 6 weeks).
  2. From the far-off group to a close-up group (approximately 3 weeks; heifers are often introduced here).
  3. From the close-up group to a calving/maternity pen (approximately 24 hours).
  4. From the calving/maternity pen to a fresh group (approximately 3 weeks).
  5. From the fresh group to a lactating group.

Who is in Charge?

Recognizing that all moves are stressful and that each group has specific needs, the ideal would suggest that there should be a pen manager for each different group. While it is possible for one person to manage different penning groups, it is wrong to commingle two groups with different needs.

Above All, Do NOT Overcrowd.

Overcrowding sometimes seems to make economic sense, but at a certain level it hurts your cows and your bottom line. Rumination, reproduction and milk quality may all suffer in an overcrowded pen. Think again when adding that “last cow” to the group.

Spanish research found that, milk production declined as stall stocking density increased.  Stocking density is an essential component of the cow’s social environment. It determines if she will meet her time budget requirements for feeding, resting and ruminating and, consequently, be healthy and productive. Pen size, as well as stocking density, has an effect on lying and ruminating time. Moving to a smaller pen decreased lying time and to a larger pen increased this behavior.

Research at Miner Institute found that, as stall stocking density surged from 100 to 142 percent, milkfat percentage was reduced and somatic cell count spiked. In fact, overstocked cows ate 25 percent faster and ruminated 1 hour per day less which explained the reduction in the milkfat test. Overstocked cows also experience a greater pathogen load in their environment, have greater teat end exposure to pathogens and may experience immune suppression. These changes could explain the observed adverse effect of overcrowding on milk quality.

Penning by the Numbers

Conclusions drawn from studies of pen stocking include the following:

  • Change in stocking density affected the cows’ response to regrouping. When cows were moved into a pen with a relative higher stocking density, time spent lying following regrouping decreased. Alternatively, when cows were moved into a pen with a lower stocking density, their total resting time increased.
  • Data from the University of British Columbia demonstrated multiple negative effects on feeding behavior and potentially rumen health in the 48 hours following the regrouping. They found that aggression at the feedbunk climbed two-fold, DMI (dry matter intake) dropped 10 percent, feeding rate rose 10 percent and rumination times were 10 percent lower after regrouping.

Studies have concentrated on various behavioral changes

  • Lying and feeding behaviors. Lying and feeding behaviors were monitored from 1 day before regrouping to 1 day after regrouping.
  • Social aggression at the feed bunk. Social aggression at the feed bunk was monitored for 3 hours following the delivery of feed on the day before and after regrouping.  Social aggression increased when stocking density increased and decreased when stocking density decreased following the regrouping.
  • Regrouping behaviors. Increasingly larger dairy farms result in increased social crowding and social mixing, which in turn causes social stress. Regrouping is more stressful for introduced cows than for resident cows.

Keep Your Pens Clean

Sometimes what seems easiest is counterproductive when it comes to dairy pen management. Although it would seem obvious from the parallel with human hospitals, there seems to be a letdown in sanitation protocols in dairy hospital pens.  With so much at risk, in terms of the lifetime production and animal health, overlooking pen cleanliness is a costly decision to make.

Timing is key
Data from Purdue University and the University of British Columbia indicated that moving cows later in the day and avoiding feeding times may be beneficial. This will minimize the reduction in DMI for resident cows as the majority of consumption will occur during the two hours after delivery of fresh feed anyway. Another benefit is that the new cows will enter a pen where minimal activity is occurring, which affords the greatest opportunity to eat and find other resources (resting space, water, grooming brush and so forth) with little competition.

A Danish study observed easier adaption to a new pen for first-lactation cows when introduced in pairs rather than individuals. The result was longer lying times for these cows. Most importantly, no pen moves should occur within one week of calving (other than to a calving pen) and, if possible, moves in the last 14 to 21 days of gestation should be avoided.

Finally, to avoid prolonging the final stages of calving, research from the University of British Columbia and Arahus University suggests moving dairy cows into a calving pen at least five hours before calving. While this may not always be possible, it does reiterate the importance of routine checks on a close-up group to watch for signs of the onset of labor.

Pen Moves Have Both Short and Long Term Effects

The benefits of a longer stay in the close-up pen are not limited to the transition period. Cows and heifers housed in this pen for at least five days produced more milk over the next lactation. This response was greatest for first-lactation heifers, resulting in 3,300 pounds more milk over the lactation. Lengthening the stay in the close-up pen to at least nine days improved production over the first lactation by an additional 2,200 pounds. The same trend, but to a lesser degree, was evident in cows entering their second or greater lactation.

Moving cattle between groups brings about a considerable change in behavior and a period of increased interaction for about 48 hours before social stabilization and the development of a stable hierarchy. These changes may have a negative effect on milk yield and health in the moved individuals.   Effects on milk production for mature cows moved after the transition period are small and short term in nature.  However, not all movements between groups should be considered equal, and the effect on individuals, first-lactation animals and subordinate animals in particular, during a high-risk period such as the transition period, may be greater and last far longer. Although detected changes in milk yield may be small, there may be longer-term effects on health and reproduction yet to be identified that are of greater significance.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Every pen move has two main parts:  the reason for the move and the intended outcome.

Keeping those two goals in mind, there are opportunities to reduce the negative impacts of physical moves while maximizing the potential of your dairy herd. That`s always a good move!



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