Cows that stand too much may be telling you something about cow comfort in your barn.
by Cassandra Tucker
The author is an associate professor in the department of animal science at the University of California, Davis.
Inadequate flooring can cause lameness and discourage cows from eating, thus impacting milk production. Look for ways to improve standing cow comfort in your facilities.
When talking about cow comfort, I often focus on cattle lying behavior. I think about how to give the cow a comfortable place to lie. I think about the size and design of the stall, and all aspects of bedding - how often to groom it, how to keep it clean, and when to add more.
I focus on lying because we know it's an important behavior for cows. They spend as much as half of their lives lying down. It is something cows want to do.
As scientists, one way we have learned about the importance of lying is by not letting the cow do it. Numerous studies have looked at what happens when we keep cows on their feet for one to four or more hours at a time. How do we tell if a standing cow is comfortable or not? Understanding this isn't simple, but we've gained some insights.
Watch for signs
We have looked at comfort while standing by measuring the following cattle behaviors.
1. Watch their step.
If they have a choice, cows will vote with their feet. When walking, they'll take care to avoid rocky parts of a path or choose rubber flooring in concrete laneways.
It turns out that cows also watch their step while standing in one place. Several studies have found that, if there is a rocky or uneven surface under one hoof, cows will shift their weight away from that leg. This tells us that the quality of the flooring matters to cows. Uneven flooring, cracks, and very rough surfaces result in cows watching their step - not only when they walk but also when they stand.
2. Look for restlessness.
The more time cows spend standing, the more restless they become. They take more steps per minute the longer they stand. They also shift their weight back and forth more.
We don't know exactly what taking more steps and shifting their weight means, but in humans these same behaviors are a way to improve blood flow to the legs. If you've ever taken a long plane ride or car trip, you might be able to relate. Walking around and moving your legs improve circulation. Cows may be doing the same thing to cope with periods of standing while waiting to be palpated, bred, or milked.
People often report feeling discomfort after long periods of standing. We think this might also be true of cows, in part, because they show more restless behavior the longer they stand.
3. A race to lie down.
How quickly do the cows lie down? We can also gauge how comfortable cows are when standing by looking at what happens when they have the opportunity to lie down. We can monitor how quickly they lie down after we release them from lockup or when they return from milking. If they lie down right away, this indicates that they may have been uncomfortable while standing or that they were standing for too long.
In studies that make cows stand for three or four hours at a time, they will often lie down within minutes afterward. These findings tell us that long periods of standing (more than three hours) result in tired cows.
Weary on their feet
Why should we be concerned about cow comfort while standing?
Lying down quickly after long periods of standing has drawbacks. After milking, it might mean that cows chose to lie down rather than eat or drink. After lockup, it could mean that the freestalls or lying areas are more crowded than they would be otherwise. Overcrowding may limit the cows' ability to get as much rest as they need.
Long periods of standing are harmful for other reasons, too. Cows forced to stand show a heightened stress response. They have higher levels of cortisol, and they become more responsive to stressful events compared to when they stand for shorter periods.
The timing of long stretches of standing also matters. When cows spend more time standing before calving or in early lactation, they are more likely to become lame or have claw injuries later in lactation. Managing cows to minimize long stretches of standing is important.
However, cows sometimes choose to stand for long periods on their own, regardless of how they are managed. For example, cows in heat spend more time standing and show more restless behavior than cows that are not in estrus. In addition, cows spend more time standing when temperatures rise over 70°F. We think that they stand up when they start to get hot in order to lose heat. Standing raises airflow around the body and might also facilitate respiration and panting, but these reasons have not been studied.
Although cows may choose to stand up for good reasons, there can still be consequences. When cows stand more in response to hot weather, we see higher levels of lameness and claw injuries.
Cut out unnecessary standing
How can we address comfort while cows are standing?
Check the schedule. Do your cows ever spend more than three hours standing at a time? Look at the daily milking schedule, the time from when cows leave the freestall pen to when they return. Take a close look at the schedule on days when herd health, palpation, or breeding take place. This could also be an opportunity to improve comfort.
Analyze the flooring. The quality of the flooring matters. Floors with cracks, abrasive surfaces, or exposed edges are uncomfortable for cows. If you are using sand bedding, an upside is that grit from the stalls can improve the grip of the floor and prevent slipping. However, if the sand has pebbles and stones, this can turn an otherwise good floor into an uncomfortable one. Rubber flooring can also help, particularly in high traffic areas.
Think about heat abatement. In the summer, or once temperatures start to rise over 70°F, cows spend more time standing to lose body heat. Providing shade, using soakers over the feedbunk, fans over the lying areas, and both sprinklers and fans in the holding pen and milking parlor can all help keep cows cool. If you provide soakers at the feedbunk, cows will spend more time standing there, so flooring in this area may be especially important.
Cow comfort means maximizing opportunities to lie down and eliminating long periods of standing. It means providing a comfortable place for cows to lie down and to stand. It goes beyond facilities and includes all aspects of dairy management.
Take a stand for your own cows, and give them a solid place to land with their four hooved feet.