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Using Cow Signals to identify herd problems during housing


Cow Signals, a concept which encourages farmers to observe their cows and help identify problems and issues, has been steadily gathering momentum in the UK

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The idea of Cow Signals was developed by a group of Dutch vets who were seeing the same problems on dairy farms day in, day out.


In a bid to encourage dairy producers to take cow welfare seriously, they masterminded the Cow Signals concept, which in essence aims to get farmers to take the time to observe their cows’ behaviour at housing and identify any problems or issues.


Rachel Lander, technical manager with NWF Agriculture and a Cow Signals ‘master trainer’, says the concept is not a ‘silver bullet’ for improved performance, but is rather encouraging the use of common sense when observing cows.


Master trainers from NWF have been providing farmers around the UK with training on Cow Signals, and Miss Lander says these workshops take the format of theory in the morning, followed by a practical session in the afternoon.


She says: “There is something all farmers can take back and use on their own farm.


“We know farmers are pushed for time, but this concept is all about picking up risk animals, identifying weaknesses at housing, and showing what the bottlenecks on a farm might be.”


“We are asking farmers to look at what their cows are telling them, and make them question what they are doing and why they are doing it.


“Cows are always going to be telling you about their health and wellbeing. We want farmers to ask themselves ‘what do I see?’, ‘what does it mean?’ and then ‘how can I act on it?’”


The concept is based around the six freedoms of pasture - feed, water, light, air, rest and space, and discovering whether the cows get these freedoms at housing.




The theory part of the training involves a detailed presentation about the concept of cow signals, and a look at some of the issues to look out for.


Body condition and rumen fill: Miss Lander says looking at rumen fill and carrying out regular body condition scoring is one of the first cow signals, which should be looked at.


She says rumen fill is a quick way of identifying condition.


“Rumen fill score shows the feed intake over the last two to six hours, while body condition shows feed intakes over the last month.


“Rumen fill scoring can be done as cows are coming through the parlour, and ideally you do not want many below a score two (see panel).


Rumen fill

Score 1 – unacceptable. Cow has eaten little or nothing

Deep shrunken left side; the skin on top of the diagonal protrusion of the lumbar vertebra is caved in


Score 2 – acceptable for cows shortly after calving

The skin over the diagonal protrusion of the lumbar vertebra is caved in.


Score 3 – ideal score for milking cows

The skin over the diagonal protrusion of the lumbar vertebra goes vertically down first and then curves to the outside


Score 4 – correct for late lactating and dry cows

The skin across the diagonal protrusion of the lumbar vertebra is curved directly to the outside.


Score 5 – correct score for dry cows

The diagonal protrusion of the lumbar vertebra is not visible because of a well-filled rumen.

Risk animals and risk movements

Risk animals and risk movements 

Miss Lander says the concept concentrates on risk animals, which include those which are sick, fresh heifers and cows, and lame animals.


“There are also a number of risk moments and these are normally when animals are moving groups.


“There is the stress of hierarchical change, and new sights and smells to contend with. It is not just the ration change which can affect production - it is also the stress of moving groups.”


Miss Lander says other risk times to be aware of include turnout and other changes to feeding, weaning, heat expression and calving.

“Ideally we want a stress-free ‘calving line’, so we want to move cows easily from the dry group into the fresh group.


“This transition period is the time when we can exert most influence on the cows, and a smooth transition will give the cows the best chance possible to recover from the stress of calving.”


Unexplained notable observations (UNOs) 

UNOs refer to bumps, wounds or lesions which might be visible on a cow.


Miss Lander recommends looking at the cow, and then looking at the building itself for any shiny metal or polished marks on stall dividers, feed fences and rails.


“Shiny metal is bad, shiny coats are good,” says Miss Lander.


Time budgeting - Cows need to be allowed the correct amount of time to do things at the correct times of the day, and Miss Lander says it is important to remember what a cow is expected to do in a day.


She says: “Ideally we want them to be lying down for 14 hours, eating for six, milking for two, and socialising for another two hours.


“So if milking is taking twice as long as this, the cow will have to compromise somewhere and research suggests this compromise will be during the period normally set aside for eating. When theby go to the feed fence they will try to eat faster.”


Feed - Farmers need to question whether the cows have eaten enough, and if not then why not.


“Other cow signals around this area include counting rumination rates - cows should be making between 55 and 70 chews per cud.”


Miss Lander says farmers should look out for thin manure and also whether there is enough trough space for all the cows to eat at the same time.


“About 90 per cent of feed barriers will restrict cows in some way, and problems include neck rail measurements and trough cleanliness.”

Trough space

Lactating cows – 75cm/cow

Dry cows – 85cm/ cow


Water - Miss Lander says water is probably one of the most overlooked nutrients and says producers should remember the 15:30:60:120 rule.


“Cows can drink 15 litres of water a minute, will drink for 30 minutes a day. About 60 per cent of water will be drunk within the first 60 minutes after milking, and cows require about 120 litres of water a day.”


A water trough for every 20 cows is recommended, and Miss Lander says water trough space should allow at least 10 cows to drink at the same time, and should be positioned so other cows can get past cows which are drinking.


Light - Ideally dairy cows should have about 16 to 18 hours of light at 200 lux, and Miss Lander says farmers should be able to read a newspaper in the darkest part of the shed when there is lighting.


Air - Poor air or a lack of ventilation will be demonstrated by cows breathing quickly or showing signs of seeking fresh air. Miss Lander says: “Floors which are always wet can also indicate poor ventilation, and this can be easily remedied by taking down Yorkshire boarding or putting fans in.”


Rest - Cows should be able to lie down quickly within a minute of deciding to lie down.


The benefits of lying down should not be underestimated, says Miss Lander. “By lying down, cows are not only giving their feet a rest, but they are also allowing 30 per cent more blood to flow to the udder. There is a direct correlation between resting time and milk yield.”


Space - Housing design should not include any ‘dead-end’ passageways, as cows always need an escape path out of an area.


Miss Lander says: “It’s important there are no bottlenecks, and cows should be able to show signs of heat easily and safely.


“This means you do not want slippery floors, so you need to look and listen out for signs of slipping.”


Putting theory into practice

Following the theory session, producers are encouraged to put what they have learnt into practice.


This involves observing the herd from the feed alley, moving among the cows to see how they move, checking cows close up, followed by making conclusions on the what is going well on the farm, and what can be improved.


Tips for successfully implementing Cow Signals

  • Make sure it is a team approach. Everyone working on the farm should discuss the principles and make observations.
  • Make the observations with honesty, and act on these in a positive manner
  • Try not to make excuses for what you see
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