As cow brushes are becoming an increasingly common feature in dairy cow housing systems, Hannah Park finds out more about the benefits they offer.
Environmental and social enrichment are already forming standards in some farm assurance
schemes and, as promoting animal welfare moves up the agenda for milk buyers looking to promote high welfare practices to consumers, its significance is only likely to increase.
Alongside the positives they deliver to the cow, in particular an uplift in milk yields, a reduction in disease burden and damage to farm buildings are among the benefits farmers could see from installing cow brushes into a dairy housing system.
These were among the main conclusions from independent dairy specialist Kingshay, which has pulled together various pieces of research looking at the potential value to be had from installing cow brushes.
Other findings included a yield response of one litre per day uplift, found among second lactation cows which had access to an automated cow brush, as part of a study done by Cornell University, New York.
Research from Canada concluded that when a mechanical brush was added to a building, cows increased their scratching by 508 per cent.
Sarah Bolt, Kingshay membership development manager, says: “An environment in which dairy cows can exhibit the natural behaviour of grooming contributes to a high level of farm animal welfare and can minimise abnormal behaviour or stress.
“In an outdoor environment, cows would use trees, fence posts and other surfaces to groom on, so limiting their ability to scratch could lead to abnormal behaviour or stress.
“It is important to think about the stimulants we can provide to enrich a cow’s environment.
“Providing cow brushes can translate into more relaxed animals and could lead to a reduction in cases of some diseases, such as clinical mastitis in some instances, as well as cleaner skin, which could reduce parasites and organisms on the cow’s coat.”
Ms Bolt also highlights another study, published in April 2018, which looked at how motivated dairy cows were to use cow brushes.
It measured how hard cows were willing to work to access the reward (the brush) using increasingly heavy gates over a period of time providing access to three areas: one with fresh food; one with a cow brush; and one with neither.
Findings concluded that cows were motivated to work as hard to access the brush as they were the fresh food – and worked harder to access both the brush and the fresh food than they did the empty space.
The value of brushes and whether they could play a similar role in providing environmental enrichment for youngstock was also looked at as part of a study in New Zealand.
Findings concluded similar outcomes, in that providing calves with brushes could help to reduce stress levels and instances of parasites on the coat.
Before fitting cow brushes into a building, Ms Bolt says location, ratio of brushes to cow, stock type and maintenance should be considered.
“Situating brushes away from areas which are likely to become congested is important, particularly to avoid more dominant cows blocking pathways for other animals in the herd.
“They should be situated away from other areas in the building, such as water troughs or feed passages, to avoid creating a distraction and should also be in a space which allows enough swinging room for the size of the model.”
Kingshay highlights that 60 cows per brush is commonly used as a guide, although this could vary among different manufacturers.
To ensure the best lifespan for brushes, it also said condition and cleanliness are checked regularly.
GUIDE PRICES FOR DIFFERENT COW BRUSH TYPES
Source: Taken from Kingshay’s buyers guide to cow brushes. Prices do not include VAT.
Cow brush guidelines
Stationary brushes: These are the cheapest option available and are typically mounted on the wall or posts, with one horizontal and one vertical brush sitting parallel to one another. On some models, a spring in the horizontal brush allows this to move when it is in use.
Other options in a similar price range include a single fixed brush made from polyurethane instead of bristles, which may be used as more of a scratch pad.
Rotating brushes: Rotating brushes are electrically powered and begin to rotate automatically when a cow moves against them. Various fixture options are available, including one horizontal arm or a horizontal and vertical arm working together, in which the horizontal arm can generally move from left to right while rotating.
Swinging brushes: This vertically fitted model is also automatic and operates in a similar way to the rotating brush, but with added motion range which allows it to swing backwards and forwards and side-to-side.