Behavior Studies: Thinking like a cow in a freestall barn

By Ron Goble

Thinking like a cow doesn’t come easy for your typical dairyman. So it’s not surprising that housing for dairy cows isn’t always designed or maintained in an adequate manner, according to a university researcher speaking at the 2008 High Plains Dairy Conference in Albuquerque, NM.

“Producers spend millions of dollars building indoor housing for dairy cattle, with the aim of providing a comfortable environment for their animals – one that ensures adequate rest, protection from climatic extremes, and free access to an appropriate, well-balanced diet,” said Marina von Keyserlingk, associate professor in the University of British Columbia’s Animal Welfare Program located in Vancouver, Canada.

 “Despite these laudable aims, housing systems do not always function well from the perspective of the cow; as poorly designed and maintained facilities can cause injuries, increase the risk of disease, and increase competition among herd mates for access to feeding and lying space,” von Keyserlingk said.

She and colleague Dan Weary lead the largest research group in North America focusing on improving the welfare of dairy cattle. In Albuquerque she reviewed a number of studies that they have completed over the last 10 years, focusing on issues surrounding the design and management of feeding, standing, and lying areas provided to dairy cows in modern freestall barns. Their research shows how knowledge of cow behavior can help improve design and management of freestall housing to prevent some of the problems associated with the systems.

Von Keserlingk grew up on a cattle ranch and following her doctorate in animal science, worked in the feed industry for seven years before returning to academia as a faculty member in the Animal Welfare Program in 2002. The mandate of the UBC Animal Welfare Program is to develop practical science-based solutions to improve the health, longevity, productivity and well being of dairy cattle.

“Despite decades of research on transition cows, we still have 30% to 50% of cows getting sick around calving. Not only is this a welfare concern for the cow but it doesn’t help the cow’s productivity and it certainly doesn’t help the producers’ bottom line,” she said.

Managing disease is something dairy producers have to deal with every day. The consequences of disease result in reduced milk production, reduced reproductive efficiency,reduce longevity, involuntary culling, lost revenues and poor animal welfare. What is unique about this research group is that they have taken a different perspective by asking questions such as: “What housing do cows prefer? Does the type of bedding matter? How do housing and management decisions affect behavior of cows? What about overstocking – how does competition affect lying and feeding times? How can animal behavior help identify those cows most at risk for disease?”

She reported on what research she and colleagues had done in evaluating housing design from the cow’s perspective. She said that cows spend about 5 hours a day feeding and an average of 12 hours lying down. The rest of the day is spent going to the milking parlor and hanging around.

“We built barns with the idea that cows should be eating or lying down. However, no one told the cow this,” she said. “We know from our studies that on average cows spend about 7 hours a day standing (not feeding) and in most freestall barns the cow is forced to do this on wet concrete.”

In terms of the lying area, the researcher reported that lying time increases when cows are provided dry, well bedded and well maintained stalls, and that given prior experience, they are comfortable with either sand or sawdust. Wider stalls increased lying time by an hour a day when comparing stalls of 44 inches with those of 48 or 52 inches.

“What about freestall bedding? There are still a lot of dairies that use mattresses,” she said. “We know that mattresses can be a problem and increase hock injuries. However, not all dairy producers can afford to rip all their mattresses out, so what can you do to make these cows more comfortable?”

Their work has shown that by adding 7.5 kg of sawdust bedding on top of the mattresses improves lying time by as much as 2.5 hours and prevents development of hock lesions compared to cows housed on mattress with little or not bedding.

Well-maintained stalls can also make a big difference to the cow. “When deep bedded stalls are well maintained we saw about 13.5 hours of lying time. However, as the bedding declined, so did the lying time by about 1.5 to 2 hours. In simple terms, for every 1-inch decline in bedding, cows reduced their lying time by about 25 minutes per day. That’s huge!” she declared.  

Design of lying area

This research group has also found that June 2008 Western DairyBusiness 15 cows have a strong preference for dry lying areas. “When given a choice lying down in a stall with wet or dry bedding, they almost never lie down in a wet stall,” she said. “Moreover, if we force them to lie down in the wet, they reduce their daily lying time by 5 hours. In all of our experimental work in this area, we have never seen such a strong preference for a particular aspect of the lying area.”

Stall architecture also plays a role. “Brisket boards are used to index the cow, because we want her to lie down in such a way that the stalls do not get dirty. However, what helps the producer comes at a cost for the cow – the price she pays is about an hour’s worth of lying time. The hardware in these stalls is primarily for our benefit, not hers,” von Keyserlingk explained.

She reported increased stocking density equaled shorter lying times. “We build barns thinking that because she only lies down on average about 12 hours a day that there should be no problems putting more cows than freestalls in a pen. However, we tend to forget that cows are herd animals and they like to do things all at the same time.”  

Design of standing area

Some of their very recent work shows that cows provided with larger stalls also spend less time “perching,” a behavior she described as a cow standing half-in and half-out of the stall. Cows provided 44-inch stalls, perch on average of 90 minutes/day, compared to 70 minutes/day in 48-inch stalls and only 60 minutes/day in 52-inch stalls. “Not surprisingly, freestalls with neck rails placed closer to the curb show more perching behavior whereas those with less restrictive neck rails result in more time standing fully in the stalls” she said.

“Cows that perch have greater risk for lesions on the hind hoofs,” she added. The challenge is to determine if the behavior causes the lesions or does the presence of the lesions cause the behavior.

Lameness is one of the greatest welfare challenges facing the dairy industry. In an experiment designed on coming up with management procedures that could help lame cows recover, this group took 18 groups of lame cows that had an average locomotion score of 3 (clinically lame) and housed 9 of the groups in a conventional freestall and the other 9 groups were housed outside on pasture. “In five weeks those cows provided access to pasture had improved their gait scores by a full point.

“You will, of course, ask what about milk production? Not surprisingly those cows on pasture showed a significant decline in production. However, the question that needs to be asked is what is it about pasture that helps these cows recover?” The researchers looked at the freestall with this question in mind and conducted a similar experiment to the pasture one described above. But rather than put cows on pasture, they provided them with access to freestalls with no neck rails – essentially providing a dry comfortable area for cows to sand. Von Keyserlingk reported a significant improvement in locomotion score when lame cows were given access to stalls without neck rails compared to lame cows housed in freestalls with neck rails.

Also, they reported an increased the number of new cases of lameness and sole lesions in the groups of cows housed with neck rails compared to cows housed without neck rails.

There were zero new cases of mastitis in both treatment groups but the stalls without the neck rails were dirtier. Producers are thus left with a tough decision – remove the neck rail and improve lameness or keep the neck rail and have cleaner stalls.

“We need to go back and rethink about how we design our future barns as we have focused on the stall and the feeding areas but have forgotten about the fact that she needs to stand somewhere. We have more and more evidence indicating that she is looking for a dry comfortable place to stand, and if we are able to provide this we may, in fact, reduce some of the lameness issues,” von Keyserlingk concluded.  

 Design of feeding area

She and her colleagues have done a lot of work in the feeding area related to the cows’ ability to access the feed buck as well as the effects of social hierarchy – and as you change these factors, who benefits and who doesn’t?

“Summarizing a number of experiments involving cows that were milked 2x and fed either 1x, 2x or 4x we can see over a 24-hour period that the biggest driver motivating cows to come to the feed bunk is fresh feed delivery. They really like fresh feed,” she said. “Cows spend an additional 20 minutes feeding per day when fed 2x. We also found that subordinate cows had the greatest benefit in terms of increased feeding time when we went to twice-a-day feeding from once-perday feeding.

“We also looked at forage quality over the course of the day, and how much sorting had taken place. We know that the NDF content changed during the day. Feed had been initially formulated for 50-50 forage/concentrate ratio, and when fed once-per-day was closer to 60% forage by the next morning, while the twice-a-day feeding regime resulted in feed that was still similar to what had originally been formulated. We speculate that the dominant cows come in and start searching and sorting through for concentrate material preventing the subordinate cows from gaining early access to that feed. Thus, by the time she gets there she’s not consuming the ration you actually formulated – this may explain why she’s not milking as well as you predicted she would,” von Keyserlingk said.

Researchers also ran a feeding trial that compared giving cows 20-inchs/cow of feed bunk space vs. 40-inches. With more space per cow, she saw a 60% reduction in aggression and displacements at the feeding area. This reduction in aggressive behavior allowed cows to increase feeding activity by 24% at peak feeding times, an effect that was strongest for subordinate animals.

Competition between cows at the feed bunk reduced dry matter intake during transition, particularly before calving and at high stocking densities, cows spend significantly Cows on Northern California pasture more time waiting to gain access to the feed. The effects of competition were reduced with headlocks and further reduced with feed stalls, especially for the benefit of subordinate cows.

“A less aggressive environment at the feed bunk may also have longer-term health benefits, as cows engaged in aggressive interactions at the feed bunk are at a higher risk for hoof health problems,” she said.  

Take home messages  

• Cows like softer surfaces, for both lying down and for standing upon. Deep-bedded stalls work well for cow comfort, but require maintenance.

• When it comes to the physical structures used to build freestalls: less is more. The hardware we place in the stall is for our benefit and not the cow’s. The more restrictive we design stalls, the less attractive they become for the cow.  

• Use of restrictive stall designs can help keep stalls clean; but to avoid problems with hoof health these designs need to be accompanied by better flooring options, such as softer and drier flooring.  

•The design and management of the feeding area is important. High stocking densities at the feed bunk increase aggressive competition and keep subordinate cows away from feed.