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Dairy special: CowSignals developed to improve cow health and welfare

As a master trainer in CowSignals, Simon Harper is well-versed on how the concept can make improvements to a dairy business.

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Dairy special: CowSignals developed to improve cow health and welfare

And it is something that he is also keen to put into practice at the 260-cow dairy herd he runs along with his son Nigel at Alumbrook Farm, Holmes Chapel, Cheshire, as part of the N.D. Harper business.


Simon, who also works for Wynnstay as a national sales development manager, says: “We have paid particular attention to housing, building layout and the herd management system in order to reduce cow stress.


“The intention being to improve cow performance and, ultimately, the bottom line.”




He adds that conducting a CowSignals assessment has helped them prioritise farm investments and has meant they have kept cow comfort at the forefront of every decision regarding systems and infrastructure.


He says: In doing so, we identified three core areas to initially work on: feeding space; resting time; and transition cow management; and they have already seen a difference within two years.”

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BETHANY May, Wynnstay dairy specialist, explains that feed space has the biggest influence on dry matter intake and cow performance.


“If we limit space, we limit feed intakes,” she says. “Reduced intakes will then lead to reduced milk yields and start to impact fertility as a result of poor body condition scores.


“Each cow needs at least 750mm of feed space, with at least 90cm of reach and a feeding table which is a minimum of 5cm higher than the walkway. All of this will help reduce diet sorting.


“The height of the neck rail is also vital, with rub marks on the neck indicating access to feed is limited,” she notes.


Rumen fill


Miss May adds another tool when assessing feed space is to monitor rumen fill.


“It is valuable to spend time assessing this as it is an indicator to both feed availability and palatability of the ration. Rumen fill score is measured from one to five, with one being empty and five being full.


“Stand at the left-hand side of the cow, and if she appears ‘hollow’, this could signal she has not eaten much over the previous 24 hours which could be a result of limited feed space or poor ration palatability.”


At N.D. Harper, yolks have been installed in the feed passage to prevent competition for space, which has helped improve feed space and, subsequently, feed intake.


The 90cm reach area in each shed has been painted with gloss paint for a smooth surface, which is easily cleaned, and feed is pushed up five times-a-day to help increase feed intake.



FOR any dairy herd, careful management during the transition period and post-calving is vital and has been a priority at N.D. Harper.


“We have invested in a purpose-built shed which contains sections for the far-off cows, transition cows, calving pens, and the freshly calved cows for at least two weeks postcalving,” explains Simon Harper.


“Since doing this, we have seen fewer metabolic diseases and a drastic reduction in post-calving issues, such as retained cleansing, which we attribute to being able to closely monitor cows and manage nutrition during this important period.


He says: “We have also reduced cow stress, as there is little need for cows to move from shed to shed during the transition period.”





SIMON Harper explains that a cow should rest for a total of 14 hours per day, with the remainder of her day made up with two hours of milking, two hours of socialising and six hours of eating.


He says: “Industry research has shown that if a cow lies for 14 hours instead of nine hours, this can result in an extra litre of milk produced for every added hour of rest.


“If a cow rests for the recommended 14 hours, it allows a 30 per cent increase of blood flow to the udder, which raises milk production and can reduce mastitis. It also means cows are taking pressure off their feet, which reduces lameness and provides unrestricted movement for bulling and socialising.”





To assess if cows are lying for the recommended time, stand at the top of the shed and look at the percentage of cows that are resting, and consider if there is enough space for all the cows in that shed to rest.


“If you do not have space for one cow per cubicle, consider reducing numbers where possible.



“All of our sheds have this, with transition cows and the calving pens having more space to lay and rest.”




Simon also advises reviewing the bedding used.


“The back of your hand is the same sensitivity as a cow’s hock, so if you rub the bedding across the back of your hand and it irritates you, it will be doing the same to the cow and therefore may be affecting a cows desire to lie down.”


He notes lighting in the shed will also impact when a cow will rest.


“Each shed should have over 200 lux of light, for 14 hours. This helps increase feed intake and can help to improve fertility.


“To ensure our sheds are filled with enough light, we have installed LED lights in every shed and have noticed a significant improvement in feed intake and increased cow resting time to the ideal,” he adds.

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