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CowSignals: A Successful Approach to Putting the Focus in the Barn Design and Management on the Cow

By Jack Rodenburg, DairyLogix

Added May 31, 2017

As a dairy specialist working in extension in Ontario, Canada for 34 years (1974 to 2008), my focus for most of my career was on getting our predominantly tie stall industry to adopt freestall housing. The main driver for encouraging that conversion was the dramatic improvement in labor efficiency that freestall systems offer. Over the years, my interest in making best use of labor on family run dairies has also sparked a strong interest in new and novel automation and sensor technologies. In 1999 the first milking robots in North America were installed 20 miles from my office and that technology has become an important part of my advisory work.

But while technology is important, especially in terms of my own little corner of the dairy world, it is not the most critical success factor in dairy production. Pedometers and other sensors can help us observe and monitor the cow and particularly since they can monitor a situation continuously, they can provide valuable information. But I have also learned that if these tools mean we stop looking at cows with our own eyes we are making a very big mistake. I work with a group of veterinarians in Holland that have gained an international reputation for teaching dairy farmers, herd workers, feed advisors, veterinarians and barn designers to be more sensitive to what our cows are telling us. They have branded their workshops, lectures and books as “CowSignals” and they are delivering these products in over 60 countries around the world in more than 15 languages. At the Western Canadian Dairy Seminar, in Alberta, this program was so well received that it was repeated 4 years in a row as a pre-conference workshop.

The concept was developed 17 years ago by Dr. Jan Hulsen and Dr. Joep Driessen, practicing dairy vets in the Netherlands, who saw far too many dairy cows facing stressful situations on clients’ farms. Many of these conditions, like hocks with no hair, and varying degrees of lameness were viewed as normal because they had become so commonplace. Twenty years ago, North American experts like Dr. Nigel Cook, and Dr. Neil Anderson were at the leading edge of improving cow comfort and in fact much of their advice has made it into CowSignals training. Today there are over 400 certified CowSignals trainers around the world, advocating for the dairy cow and encouraging farmers to observe their cows closely for clues about how they interact with the barn and its management. Yet, lame cows, sore hocks, and rumen acidosis are still the norm in many dairy barns today. While we all think we are better than that, when it comes to stress on cows, many of us remain “blind” to one or more aspects of the problem.

The CowSignals program teaches that low stress management of the dairy herd provides cows with the “six freedoms of the pasture”. As illustrated in Fig. 1, the “CowSignals diamond” identifies these six freedoms as: unrestricted access to feed, water, light, air, rest and space. Every farmer trouble-shooting their own dairy facilities and management, and every advisor doing so for a client, brings their own set of biases to the situation. Applying the mantra of “feed, water, light, air, rest and space” to every assessment prevents tunnel vision and ensures every aspect of meeting the needs of the cow is given consideration. The CowSignals process also emphasizes a formal approach to problem solving that involves standing back and observing cows undisturbed, then getting in for a closer look and not making any conclusions until you have weighed your observations in relation to “feed, water, light, air, rest and space.”

When assessing cow behaviour, it is useful to understand the “nature of the beast”. By nature, the cow is a “herd animal” and when it comes to eating and resting, they show a clear preference for doing these things as a group at the same time. So having an eating space and a resting space for every cow in the herd is a priority in the world of CowSignals. Dairy cows are also “flight animals” that prefer to avoid conflict rather than face it. Although we have no predators in our dairy barns, conflict avoidance is also part of the strategy for less dominant animals in the herd in dealing with their herd mates. The CowSignals approach puts considerable emphasis on laying out barn space so animals have choices in terms of routes to feed and water, and access to milking in robot barns, etc. The concept also puts a lot of emphasis on identifying and addressing the “high risk” places and times when cows are most likely to suffer from stress. In that context, close up, calving and fresh cows, cows already lame or sick, and smaller animals low in the pecking order deserve special attention.

While conclusions about what to improve vary from farm to farm, creating a “stress free calving line” is often high on the list. The elements of a “stress free calving line” include a large bedding pack for close up cows, perhaps with optional gates that can form a squeeze and a temporary calving pen, beside a pack area for milking cows which is right beside the parlor. Lots of manger space is also critical in this area. Farms that have this minimize stress by minimizing the changes in the cow’s environment around calving time, and by offering maximum grip and comfort for resting and rising. Adequate manger space reduces competition for feed and quick turnaround through the parlor before other cows get in the way, means the fresh and lame cows in the pack get maximum time to rest.

What started as a single workshop format has grown to include more focussed workshop topics like Young Stock Signals, Hoof Signals, Robotic Milking Signals and several others. The original book “CowSignals” quotes no research studies but it is filled with practical illustrations and short, clear written suggestions, and it has been printed in 15 languages. There are now a dozen titles including books on hoof care, feeding, udder health, fertility, the dry period, dairy economics, barn design and robotic milking.

The “CowSignals” concept is not that well known in the USA but with a growing interest among consumers in where their food comes from and how it is produced combined with a growing interest among producers in cow comfort and preventative management, it is my hope that these trends “signal” a new and growing interest in what is best for the cow. . . . and there is no one that can tell us better what that is than the cow herself.

“Feed” is the First “Freedom” of the CowSignals Diamond*

Now, I would like to zero in on a few aspects of “unrestricted access to feed” that we have found valuable on dairy farms around the world. In the 60 countries we have collectively worked in, CowSignals advisors have learned a lot from top dairy farmers, but we have learned even more from cows, and cows always tell the truth!

A good place to start is to assess feed intake of individual cows. Look at the left flank of the cow, behind the last rib, below the short ribs. If you see a hollow triangle you know this cow did not eat enough today, and probably is sick already. Look for these cows with “danger triangles” every day, especially among fresh cows and close up cows. High feed intake every day is paramount to keeping cows healthy. Is she chewing 55 to 70 times on every cud? Less than 55, combined with poor rumen fill as described above, and loose manure, mean she is not getting enough forage. Giving cows like this the best possible care, perhaps in a straw pack with extra manger space, plenty of access to clean water and a great place to rest, may give them the opportunity to eat like they should.

You can also push into the rumen on the lower part of the triangle. Fluffy, and gassy is bad, dense is good. Score the “belly fill” while standing behind the cow. If the rounded hump of the rumen is not visible on the left side, the cow has likely not eaten enough in the last week. Body condition score can tell you how she has done in the last month. Pinch the skin between the tail head and the pin bone. If this is a deep hole and you feel only skin, she is too thin. Some fat under the skin is good but if there is a lot of fat, she is over conditioned and at risk of metabolic problems.
Good advice for getting high feed intake is usually quite simple. Dairy cows are “herd animals” and they are “flight animals” As herd animals they all like to eat at the same time, so provide the space for them to do that. Most Holstein cows need 27 inches when standing straight at the manger. Headlocks should be that width and total manger space should be at least that much per cow. When the depth of the eating area is too short or the top rail is too low or too close, or when ‘floating neck rails” are used, cows stand sideways while eating. Then they use 5 feet of manger space. Look for these symptoms of poor manger design in your barn and fix them if you can. Hair rubbed off on the neck means cows are reaching for feed and not getting it. While moving the neck rail up and forward might help, it is really a symptom of not pushing up feed often enough. How often is enough? Simply said, cows should always be able to reach the feed. If you come to the barn and they can’t reach it you waited too long.

Hair off the neck suggests infrequent feed push up. Standing diagonally and pushing on the top rail suggest poor top rail placement. Lack of rumen fill indicates the second cow has eaten very little today.

Dairy cows are flight animals that avoid conflict when they can, so provide lots of space and escape routes. Having enough crossovers to the manger allows cows to choose from several routes and avoid the “big momma” that is guarding the nearest water trough. In a group of 60 to 80 cows, offer 3 crossovers that are at least 12 feet wide. In one recent workshop, the main milking herd was eating from both sides of a bunk with dead ends on each side. Timid cows had only one route to feed. Adding a cross over on the end of the bunk increased intake immediately and resulted in 4 extra pounds of milk.

Cows need to have the “wheels to get to the manger frequently, and the floor needs to carry them there securely. Lame cows don’t eat enough because they eat 4 times per day instead of 12, and you can see their rumens are empty. Prevent lameness with comfortable stalls that permit 12 to 14 hours of resting, keeping alleys clean and dry, regular foot bathing and timely intervention when there is a problem. Every top dairyman we know has a trim chute in a handy spot and the basic skills to deal with a problem cow himself today rather than wait for the trimmer who is coming next month. A floor with good grip helps cows walk confidently to the manger.

A survey of Ontario freestall herds conducted in 2010 showed that half the herds were fed fresh feed once per day, and by far the largest percentage were fed right after morning milking. On average, they pushed up feed 4.2 times per day, and by far the longest interval between push ups was always between 11:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m. One of the biggest lies farmers tell us and themselves is that there is always feed in front of their cows. We would be willing to bet that at 3 a.m. there is very little in the manger and what is there is too far for cows to reach. This is often the time of day when timid, stressed and disadvantaged cows have the opportunity to stand at the manger undisturbed, but to no avail if they can’t reach the feed. We think herds that feed once a day should consider doing it after the evening milking, followed by one push up before bed time. Feed stays fresher during the cooler night time, and especially heat stressed cows will eat more in the cooler night time. The next day when there is less feed in the manger there is more opportunity to observe the bunk for sorting and manage push up. Don’t wait to push up until the feed is out of reach. Cows eat faster and easier with less sorting when they eat out of a pile of feed then when they are down to concrete. Always push up feed for cows returning from the parlor. It improves cow flow, and promotes cows standing after milking while the teat ends close, thereby reducing mastitis. Twice a day fresh feed at milking time, especially in summer is an even better option. We often find stale hot feed in front of close up cows. This is really bad because high feed intake in these cows is critical to a good transition. Although we regularly talk to dairymen who are “limit feeding to intake,” in our experience, the only way to be sure there is enough is to over feed. All the top production herds we know feed 5 to 10% more to the milking cows than what is normally consumed. They put the leftovers in the mixer and subtract the weight from the amount fed to monitor intake on the group.

While some sorting is unavoidable if there is enough manger space, all cows get an equal chance to look for the good stuff. But if managing particle size and adding water to a TMR can reduce sorting, it will be a plus to do what you can. Getting enough forage into every cow is critical to their health and production. Cows are not pigs and were never really meant to eat grain. Adequate physical fibre in the diet is a must to keep rumens and cows healthy. While labs and nutritionists are pretty good judges of fibre levels, the cow is the best judge of all.

When you have diarrhea, you are sick and more susceptible to other problems as well, and the cow is no different. When you “hear” fresh cows with diarrhea, offer them more high quality forage and less grain or add chopped straw to the ration. Adjusting the level of straw by 200 grams per cow per day for a week, and watching milk production, butterfat test, feed intake and manure scores is a great way to fine tune ration fibre levels.

Of course the quality of the feed itself and balancing the ration are important as well, and labs and nutritionist have much good information to offer. But when it comes to feeding management, observing the cows and their environment can give you the CowSignals you need to keep them healthy and producing at their best.

Originally a two-part article, Jack Rodenburg, DairyLogix and Joep Driessen, CowSignals Training Company contributed to the section on Feed.

NODPA, 30 Keets Rd, Deerfield, MA 01342 FAX: 866- 554-9483 PHONE: 413 772 0444
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