cows in field

Cow Comfort

The Big Picture


Ever since we domesticated cattle, they have had to adapt to environments designed by man often without their needs and preferences in mind. Even pasture-based systems in dairy do not completely mimic the conditions and social interactions found in the natural state. The fairly recent awakening to cow comfort and well-being by the dairy industry has been driven by both public opinion and university research. This is as much an economic pursuit as it is a movement towards better conditions for animals per se.

Advances in nutrition, genetics and biotechnology seems to work best in cows that are living the good life with comfortable places to lie down, no overcrowding and bullying, relief from heat stress, easy access to quality feed and water, sound feet and calm handling. The notion that special feed additives, magical tonics and added hormones can force cows to perform better when basic needs are lacking is delusional. Improving diets or even using rBST will have minimal response in stressed out cows. High production cannot be forced from unhappy, uncomfortable cattle!

So, what is cow comfort all about? It involves all aspects of the cow’s environment – housing, ventilation, hygiene, resting ability, social interactions, parasite pressure, air quality, walking surfaces, hoof health, etc. The lack of comfort results in detrimental physical and psychological changes helped by the production of nature’s stress relieving hormone, cortisol.

In the grand scheme of evolution, cattle are large, slow moving prey that have a strong herd instinct. In other words, cows are always vigilant for physical threats and do things as a group for protection. They do not like being isolated or moved into areas that are difficult for them to see. Humans can be as threatening to them as a natural predator based on our behavior. Just think about cutting out one animal from the group and moving it into a pen in a dark barn.

Cow Comfort Factors

NODPA Field Dayswaterbucket

Tie Stall Water Bowl: capacity, quick refill andease of cleaning are
important, particularly with shared water sources.

Dairy cows need about 12 hours of lying time per day to keep healthy and efficient. In free-stalls, overcrowding favors dominant cows for stall selection and first crack at the bunk. In older tie stall barns the dimensions, the ability of cows to easily get up and down and the hardness and abrasive nature of the stall bed is often an issue. Concrete manager curbs, low neck rails, short stall beds, too little bedding and slippery surfaces keep cows on their feet too long. Injuries can be common when cows struggle to get up in cramped stalls.

Excessive standing time, regardless of the surface used, leads to internal hoof stresses, damage to growth zones and eventually lameness – think laminitis, sole ulcers and abscesses. If hoof trimming to balance the claws is not practiced, these excessive standing bouts really play havoc with lameness compared to routinely trimmed feet.

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Heat stressed cow

Heat stress alters eating patterns and may cause cows to stand longer in a barn in order to cool better. It also reduces cud chewing and appetite. Rumen acidosis is more prevalent in hot weather particularly with panting and drooling. The same forages and ration that worked well in the cool season can look too “hot” during prolonged heat stress spells. Cows can produce up to 1600 watts of heat, the equivalent of the high setting on a standard, portable electric heater. With a large body mass to surface area ratio and few sweat glands, cows dissipate heat poorly by just having air move over them. When housed inside, cooling with sprinklers and fans is ideal. Outside, shade will help keep body temperatures down.

Water is an often overlooked necessity. Milk is 88% water. High production in the summer may require 40 gallons of water consumption, daily. Accessibility is important, but quality is, too.

Drinking cups and troughs may not fill fast enough when cows return to their stalls or groups. This may be due to pressure issues or water line restrictions. Keeping these clean improves intakes. Pond water subject to surface runoff may promote the growth of toxic blue-green algae during hot, dry weather when the pond becomes stagnant. Don’t forget the impact hard water may have on mineral metabolism, immunity and reproduction.

Walking surfaces should promote good traction, but be free of large and sharp stones. Cows like walking and standing on rubber over concrete. Deep, muddy laneways can bruise soles. Slippery concrete leads to injury, poor mounting activity and difficult heat detection.

Cow handling should be done methodically, quietly and without physical contact. Prods, canes, whistling and yelling are not necessary. Paying attention to the cow’s flight zone, blind spot and balance point as championed by Dr. Temple Grandin prevents stress, negative behavior and possible injuries. Chutes, management rails and headlocks can reduce the animal excitement associated with routine procedures.

Management Strategies

Preventing disease and its ramifications is important to insuring cow well-being and comfort. The transition of the cow from pre-calving, through calving and into the milking string is the most critical phase of her life cycle. The vast majority of infectious and metabolic disease as well as economic loss happen in this timeframe. Good breeding records are basic to knowing when cows are due. Dry cow/prefresh diets and vaccination programs work best when you can reliably figure the days into the pregnancy.

A clean, well bedded area to calve in will benefit both the dam and calf. The exposure of the calf in the first day to cow world microbes is not a good thing. Proper colostrum management will not overcome massive exposure to pathogens early in life. Sufficient, hygienic feeding in a dry deep bedded area is the comfort that baby calves desire!

Periodic maintenance of milking equipment is necessary for udder health. Out of specs vacuum, incorrect pulsation, plugged vents, out of time inflations and malfunctioning regulators are not only recipes for mastitis, but can give the cow an unpleasant milking experience.

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Hock Lesions resulting from bad stall conditions

Routine hoof trimming has gained more acceptance for its reduction in lameness, culling and treatment cost. Routine implies trimming for everyone not just lame cows. Confined cattle seem to max out on a cost-benefit basis at a frequency between 6 and 8 months. Imbalanced weight bearing and the breakdown of hoof structures is the reason for frequent trimming. Pastured cattle will not need the frequency of hoof care, but the principles of weight bearing distribution apply nonetheless.

Grazing is great for hoof and leg health, but can expose cattle to significant parasite loads. Assume all pastures are contaminated to some extent if cattle were on them in the previous year. Youngstock are most susceptible to intestinal worms. They should not graze with adults or follow them on pasture. Adults develop some resistance by age 3 to 4. Overwinter deworming is the best conventional means to break the cycle driven by fecal egg shedding. A rotation of grazing, rest, hay cropping and back to grazing can be helpful to reduce parasite larvae without chemical intervention.

The Take Home Message

Cow comfort is a win-win for our animals and us. It promotes a more healthful environment for cows and better bottom line for producers. It is a proactive statement to those against animal agriculture for humane reasons. It changes our mindset on what we think cows need. And for those of us who like to consider our animals as something special with personality and spirit, it feels right.

Dr. Jerry Bertoldo, DVM, works at Cornell Cooperative Extension, Genesee County, as a Dairy Specialist on the North West New York Dairy, Livestock and Field Crop Team, a regional, 10-county program of Cornell Cooperative Extension and with Pro-Dairy as a dairy management specialist. Dr. Bertoldo will lead a hands-on workshop on cow comfort at the 15th Annual NODPA Field Days, October 1 & 2, 2015, in Pavilion, NY. He can be reached at 585-343-3040 x133 or by email,

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