Archive for Cow Comfort

How to Increase Milk Production and Herd Health with Better Lighting

Although I resolutely hate New Year’s Resolutions, I confess that each turning of the calendar year will find me dreaming up a “project” for the next twelve months.  Although I hate resolutions because they just don’t work, nevertheless, I am hooked on projects that that actually do something!  Thus, I happily substitute project planning for resolution breaking. However, the project chosen has to have certain features.  It must make a difference.  It must have a plan.  It must have buy in, finances and scheduled action.

Today when I applied those criteria to topics for Bullvine articles, lo-and-behold in the cold dark days of January a light went on!!! Well duh!  As I keep an eye on dear hubby’s daily trips to our little barn, I watch to see his progress by looking for the lights in various locations.  Lights are also the handy way that my ninety-seven-year-old Mother in Love and I signal that “all’s well!” at her house next door! If the signal light is off after dark, it’s time for a check in. This led me to recall some experiments we implemented during our milking herd days regarding long-day versus short-day lighting on milk production and herd health management.

What’s Light Got to Do With It?

While it would seem simple to simply program dairy facility lighting to turn off and on for the desired amounts of time, there are other considerations that complicate the procedure.  For one thing, not all dairy chores are on a predictable schedule.  Calvings, maintenance, health issues all require that the human staff can see clearly to carry out their work. Happily, there are studies that allow the necessary dark time for the cattle but allow the necessary light for reading ear tags, medication or other detailed activities.

To measure the level of lighting available, a light measure should be used to measure the foot candles. Fifteen (15) foot candles of light in the housing is the recommended benchmark for benefiting from a long day photoperiod. At the other end of the light manipulation spectrum, darkness also plays an important role. Research shows that cows do not perceive light under five foot candles.  This is an important piece of information, particularly for managing 3X operations and anywhere that employees need to be able to continue their work without disrupting the photoperiod being targeted for the herd. One recommended solution is the placing of low-intensity red lights 20 to 30 feet apart and 20 feet off the ground.

You might think the amount of light in your barn doesn’t matter much. Think again. You can improve cow comfort, herd health and productivity by the flick of a light switch.

You might think the amount of light in your barn doesn’t matter much. Think again. You can improve cow comfort, herd health and productivity by the flick of a light switch.

Working in the Right Light

Studies carried out by Professor Alma Kennedy at the Universities in Canada (Manitoba and Alberta) conclude that dairy cattle can tolerate at least one foot-candle of white light and still experience this as “dark.”  This research also showed that exposure to 5 foot-candles at night reduced the normal level of the main nighttime hormone (melatonin) by 50 to 70 percent, a significant interference with the animals’ normal nighttime function.

Based on the present research findings, it is determined that night light in dairy barns can be designed with an intensity of about 1 to 1.5 foot-candles. When this is the case, dim light at 1 to 1.5 foot-candles allows surprisingly precise observation. Literature reports that “a person with normal eyesight can read newsprint with one foot-candle of light. More specifically, dairy farmers report that ear tags can be read, and cows identified at a distance when using this level of dim light.” Some farmers refer to this as “moonlight.” Dual-level fixtures and specially designed fluorescent fixtures are commercially available to meet this purpose.

And the Studies Show

Source: Dahl, G.E. & D. Petitclerc: Management of photoperiod in the dairy herd for improved production and health.

Source: Dahl, G.E. & D. Petitclerc: Management of photoperiod in the dairy herd for improved production and health.

The investment in special lighting is well supported by research trials that provide proof on the effectiveness of long-day lighting as a tool for all dairy operations.

Lactating Cows – More production

There is up to a 10% increase in milk production when cows are given a long day photoperiod. One study reports that cows receiving 16 hours of light a day produce 3.7 pounds more milk a day than cows under a natural lighting scheme. Furthermore, after 20 days, the difference increases to 6.8 pounds per day. Sixteen hour lighting also slowed the decrease in milk production of those cows that originally started with natural lighting.

Lactating Cows – More DMI

Results of studies also supports that cattle exposed to long day lighting take in more dry matter. Compared to cows under a natural photoperiod of 9 to 12 hours of light, the 16-hour exposure can result in up to 6% more dry matter intake.  It is interesting that the additional intake did not have a corresponding weight gain.  This suggests that long day photoperiod cows are more feed efficient and are capable of converting increased dry matter intake into milk.

Photoperiod Can Affect Reproductive Performance

Dairy herds that provided 24 hours of light to cattle saw negative results.  Providing 24 hours of light resulted in longer days between breedings, more days open, and more breedings per cow.

Numerous research studies in North America have clearly demonstrated that when dairy cows are provided summerlike, long days in the winter, they respond with increased milk production. The increase in yield noted in nine such studies average 5 pounds per cow per day. No adverse effects on fertility or health have been reported.

Light Can Mean Lower Age to Puberty

A goal of the industry has been to get heifers into the milking herd as soon as possible. Previous research has indicated that long day photoperiod can lead to leaner growth, greater mammary development, and lower the age to puberty by an average of one month.  One study determined that breeding and calving of the heifers in the long day photoperiod occurred earlier than heifers in a short day photoperiod.  Even though long day photoperiod heifers had a lower body weight, they did not experience limited skeletal growth.  Instead, they had lower body condition scores because they were using the energy that they consumed for skeletal growth.  Feed intakes did not differ between the short day photoperiod and long day photoperiod groups and long day photoperiod heifers spent less time at the feed bunk, which would suggest they were more feed efficient.  The long day photoperiod heifers also had higher milk production throughout the first 5 DHI tests.

In one of the first studies looking at differences in the growth between heifers with supplemented lighting (16 hours) and natural lighting, heifers in the supplemented lighting group had a larger heart girth size of about 1.6 inches after the 16-week trial.  These heifers also averaged 1.9 pounds of daily gain compared to the 1.7 pounds for the heifers in a natural lighting scheme.

Dry Cows Need Less Light

Dry cows have the opposite effect with a long day photoperiod compared to lactating cows and heifers.  Providing dry cows with a short day photoperiod leads to higher milk production the next lactation.  One study has shown milk production increased 6.8 pounds per day in the next lactation.  Milk, fat and protein yields were also higher in the short-day photoperiod cows.  A short-day photoperiod also lead to 2.9 lbs more daily dry matter intake during the dry period.

Additional Management Factors

Farmers have many different protocols to increase milk production including manipulating the amount of light available throughout the day.  One practice that would yield significant results would be to start managing lighting at a young age.  Producers should provide long day photoperiod to their heifers to help increase dry matter intake and make them more feed efficient.  Providing a long day photoperiod would also allow them to breed heifers at an earlier age.  Dry cows benefit the most from a short day photoperiod, 8 hours of light and 16 hours of dark.    Dry matter intake increases when dry cows have shorter lighting periods.

With ever-narrower margins, dairy farmers are always seeking tools that will improve the productivity of their dairy farms.

First make the plan. Modernize and develop lighting on your dairy enterprise.

Then consider the finances. Sure there will be expenses but there will also be proven profitability.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

As we have learned, long-day light is a simple and well-proven technique to increase milk production and profitability.

Don’t make resolutions that you won’t follow through on.

Instead, make sure that you’re seeing your dairy herd in the right light!


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A Bedtime Dairy Tale: Once Upon a Hard Place…..

If you want your dairy queens to reign at the top, you have to start with what is underneath!

Remember the story of the Princess and the Pea?

She could feel a pea through several mattresses.  In our dairy barns, we have productive queens and royal princesses who have that same sensitivity … in their bovine feet.  Everything they walk on, sleep on or stand on affects their comfort, health and how long their dairy reign will last.Cows on pasture can choose where to lie down, or more importantly, change to a more comfortable spot, as far as what they walk and lie down on.  However, nothing is perfect, and mud, stones, wind, rain and excessive heat and cold can add discomfort to the presumed better outdoor conditions.  Looking inside the barn, logic tells us that sand would be the softest, mouldable bedding … but, that would have to be sand that isn’t clogging machinery or providing other problems for the human side of the dairy operating equation.

There are Always Trade-Offs When Choosing Bedding

Efficiency and effectiveness also add to the variables you have to consider when choosing bedding.  It might be hugely efficient to have automatic scrapers, slatted floors or automatic spray cleaners but, if these are making cows nervous and causing slips, falls and lameness the efficiency and savings in work hours may be completely eradicated by less production, more illness added vet costs and increased culling. Ultimately cattle welfare is complicated.

Whether your cows are princesses or queens, your choice of bedding will be influenced by whether it is tie stall, free stall, or open style. Cost and labor efficiency are high priorities to factor in as well.  

Well-packed beds, like the excellent ones maintained at cattle shows are definitely cow-comfortable. They require constant maintenance to stay manure free.  On the one hand, the added tasks mean that you are very aware of the manure from each cow and the regular observation allows problems or changes in status to be noted and dealt with in a timely and efficient manner. On the other hand, you incur the added labor costs and expense to replace or maintain the pack.  Furthermore, the best bedding material for combating lameness may not be best for udder cleanliness. Relative concerns regarding such different problem areas will also influence bedding material recommendations.

 “Our mission is to improve the lives of animals through research education and outreach.”

That is the mission statement of The Animal Welfare group at the University of British Columbia goes like this.   (Link: They studied barn design and management, and their results showed three areas that have the biggest impact on animal welfare:

  1. Providing deep bedding
  2. Professional management with Standard Operation Procedures
  3. The use of technology to detect illness

Deep Bedding Makes the Most Difference in Lameness

The team at the Animal Welfare group at UBC concluded that bedding is the single most important feature that can reduce lameness on dairy farms (From the Hoard’s Dairyman webinar with Dan Weary, the University of British Columbia.) The researchers studied cow comfort and barn design, and the differences in how people build and manage their farms in Canada, the US and China and found that the lying surface provided to the cows made a significant difference.

  • Farms using deep bedding have 50% lower lameness rates than those who don’t.
  • The north east of the US has a higher lameness rates compared to California dairies that use deep bedded recycled dry manure solids.
  • The use of deep bedding reduces hock lesions, with 95% less hock lesion rate.

If you can see the floor under cow, you will have problems with lameness and hock lesions.

Sometimes Big is Better for Cow Comfort

To draw a comparison to human comfort let’s look at bed and breakfasts and hotels.  Sometimes the small intimate B&B has the edge because of the one on one attention.  However, there are times when the bed may have seen too many guests or is restricted because of the small inn ambience.  It’s nice to get a consistent night’s sleep at a big hotel chain with a comfortable mattress. However, back to cow comfort.

Desirable Characteristics of Bedding

There are two driving factors behind good bedding choices. One is cow comfort, and the other is farmer comfort. The two sometimes pull in opposite directions. Nevertheless, cow comfort must win out whenever the decision affects the cow spending most of the day lying down processing feed into milk.

  • Bedding must be comfortable to lie on.
  • Because cows are large animals, bedding must offer uniform support.
  • Coolness in summer and warmth in winter will promote cow comfort.
  • Dry bedding is critical for comfort and reduction in pathogen growth.
  • Good footing is essential for injury prevention.
  • Nonabrasive bedding promotes both comfort and injury reduction.
  • Besides whatever physical comfort dairy workers need, there are the financial comforts that require that bedding be cost efficient and labor efficient.

Six Cow Comfort Choices

Studies are accumulating data that shows that with increasing comfort daily lying time increases and hock scores improve for lactating and non-lactating cows. Here are some options to consider as part of your environmental and animal welfare strategy.

  1. Compost, or composting material, is used as bedding in open style barns. Cows find this comfortable as observed by lying time. As well, foot and leg health has positive improvement with this system. The nature of the material requires that the facility have good air circulation.  Teat cleaning will also need scrupulous attention. Good management is required and includes the challenges of daily tilling and regular replacement of the material.
  1. Geotextile Mattresses manufactured from a variety of materials are commercially available. These may be used in either tie stall or free stall barns.  They are marketed as requiring no bedding, but research has shown (see Bernard, et al. and Tucker and Weary) that added bedding makes the mattresses much more attractive to cows. Mattresses are generally installed in rows and come in a variety of sizes to fit typical stall sizes.
  1. Paper may be available inexpensively or even free in the vicinity of paper mills or shredding companies. Chopped recycled newsprint has also been used for dairy bedding. Both can be effectively mixed with other bedding materials. Fineness of chop will influence bedding characteristics. Because the material must be kept dry, storage factors into consideration.
  1. Sand can be an excellent choice of bedding. Because sand is an inert material, it will not tend to promote growth of pathogens, though when mixed with manure, the manure will support pathogen growth. Particle size is of great importance. Too small a particle size (or too much organic matter mixed in) will hold water too well. Large particles (> 3mm) will not be comfortable to lie on. Sand that is naturally occurring has rounded edges and is more comfortable as bedding than manufactured sand that comes from crushing rock. The potentially negative side of using sand as bedding comes in the disposal. In a liquid manure handling facility, sand must be settled out and disposed of. If this could be done in such a way as to reuse the cleaned sand, however, it would become a benefit.
  1. Sawdust and Wood shavings are commonly used bedding materials for dairy cows. They have the advantage over sand of being broken down by microorganisms in the disposal system, but they have the disadvantage of allowing growth of microorganisms (pathogens). Addition of lime to bedding may reduce growth of pathogens. The smaller particle size of sawdust makes it more absorbent than wood shavings and quicker to break down. However, small particle size is also associated with rapid growth of bacteria and other harmful pathogens. Cost and availability tend to be deciding factors in choice of material.
  1. Straw composts well and reduces in volume when composted, better than sawdust or wood shavings. It is important when using straw as bedding that the particle size be small, preferably fitting through a ¾ inch screen, both to increase animal comfort and to shorten breakdown time. Bedding absorbency as well as comfort to animals varies according to the species as well as to the chop size. Straw is an attractive bedding alternative when it is produced on the farm.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

There is much to consider in removing that uncomfortable pea in your dairy facilities.  The first discomfort may be with the associated costs and the difficult logistics of implementing change. There is no doubt that cow comfort practices affect lameness and longevity.  Accept the comfort challenge and you may find that “happily ever after starts with better bedding.” 




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Tidings of Cow Comfort and Joy

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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