It is all too easy to see things happening on-farm and dismiss it as normality, but by using the concept of ‘cow signals’ farmers can learn to take an outsider’s view on their dairy herd’s health and well-being.
Dairy farmers are often guilty of ‘owneritis’ according to cow signals trainer and vet, Owen Atkinson.
Speaking at a series of cow signals meetings organised by AHDB Dairy, Mr Atkinson said farmers often focused on the small things when in reality they needed to see the bigger picture.
“This is what cow signals is all about, cows do not lie,” he said.
Cow Signals is a training course designed to make farmers stop and look at their cows in a different way, using body language and quantitative measures to identify problems and successes in the herd.
Here are some handy hints on ways you can measure how happy cows are in their environment and what to look for.
The cow time budget: Lying and eating
There is research which concludes the amount of time cows spend lying down significantly increases milk production. The amount she eats can also have a positive or negative effect on how much milk she produces. Therefore, optimising the time she spends lying and ruminating and standing and eating can contribute towards more milk in the tank.
Cows spend more than 50 per cent of their time lying and ruminating and the target should be 10-14 hours per day. About 20 per cent of their time is spent standing and eating, usually four to five hours.
The other 30 per cent of a cow’s time is spent milking, drinking and taking part in other activities, such as displaying bulling behaviour, socialising and walking.
Lame cows tend to lie for longer periods of time. Although their time spent eating is often the same as a healthy cow, it will tend to stand and eat for longer periods, causing fluctuations in rumen pH and often leading to subacute rumen acidosis.
When observing from a distance without disturbing any cows, 75 per cent of cows in the herd should be either ruminating or eating.
Cubicle comfort index
Of the cows in contact with the cubicles, either lying, standing or perching, 85 per cent of these should be lying. This indicates how willing cows are to lie in the cubicles and the level of cow comfort.
If targets are not met, consider how comfortable the cubicles are. Are they too small or is the lunge area wrong? Sometimes in head-to-head cubicles the lunge area between cubicles can be too short, causing cows to lie at an angle.
“Ideally, if you are going to put in new head-to-head cubicles, allow for a five-foot wide centre lunging area, with beds at either side of six feet in length. I know this seems like dead space but it will make so much difference to the cow,” said Mr Atkinson.
Rumen fill is a good indicator of the nutritional status of an animal. It shows feed intake and the rate of passage of feed over the previous few hours and identifies animals which have not been eating.
Rumen fill is scored on a 1-5 scale, with 1 being empty and 5 being full. Look at the left of the cow, behind her ribs in the space before the hook bone, under the transverse processes (short ribs).
Rumen fill scores
1. A large, deep hollow in the left flank, more than one hand deep after the last rib. Skin curves under the transverse processes. Skin falls vertically from the hook bone creating a rectangular shaped recess. A score of 1 indicates the cow has not eaten in the last 24 hours.
2. Dip in the left flank, skin curves under the transverse processes by half a hand width. The skin from the hook bone runs diagonally creating what is known as the ‘danger triangle’ which is a warning the cow’s intakes are too low. This is not unusual to see in the first week after calving.
3. A score of 3 is desired for a milking cow with sufficient feed intakes. A slight dip is visible, the skin from the transverse processes runs vertically for the width of a hand before bulging out slightly. The skin fold from the hook bone is barely visible.
4. No dip visible in the left flank. Skin from the transverse processes curves outwards and the skin fold from the hook bone is not visible. This is the minimum target score for pre-calving cows.
5. Skin is flat or slightly bulging with little sign of the bones. Skin is quite tight over the whole abdomen, with no visible transition between flank and ribs. This is quite often the score seen in dry cows as calves are large and pushing out the rumen.
85 per cent of cows should be above score 1 or 2.
There are a number of factors which contribute towards a low rumen score, including lameness.
Is she too sore to stand and eat, or is there a lack of feed availability and space at the feed bunk, or is she a low ranking animal? Rumen scoring also helps to identify animals at risk, such as heifers, fresh-calved cows and lame cows.
Another good way of measuring cow comfort is by counting how many cows have abrasions and lesions on their hocks, neck or backbone.
Less than 10 per cent of cows should have traumatised hocks.
Abrasions on the hock are an indicator of incorrectly sized cubicles and poor cow comfort. Evaluate existing mattresses or bedding.
What could be done to improve comfort for the cow? Rubs on the neck indicate the neck rails on feed barriers are too low, so consider increasing their height.
Space is an important requirement for cows and this includes at the feed barrier and water troughs too.
Measure the whole shed area, including all passageways the cows have access to and cubicles. Divide this by the number of cows to give an area measurement.
Space at the feed barrier is also very important. Measure all available feeding space and divide by the number of cows in the shed.
It is also important to ensure all cows have access to clean water,=. Measure the total drinking area available and divide by the number of cows in the shed.
The target area per cow should be 10sq.m or 1sq.m per 1,000kg milk produced. For a 7,500kg herd, the requirement would be 7.5sq.m.
Feeding space per cow should be 70cm and 85cm for dry cows. There should also be feed available 24 hours per day.
The target for space per cow at the water trough is 10cm per cow.
If there is not enough room for all animals to feed at the same time, the chances are some lower-ranking animals may not get the opportunity to feed for as long as they should as more dominant animals prevent their access to the barrier.
Other indicators to consider are body condition score, cudding rate, availability of light and air.