Cow Signals - Cows never lie!

Cow Signals Certified Master - Richard Bainbridge shares his experience in order to keep our cows healthy and productive.

Cow Signals - Cows never lie!

There's always a number of cows you'll remember for their quirky or mischievous nature but the one thing cows never do is lie! Cows can be said to be the most honest beings on our farms, as their behaviour and what is ultimately collected in the bulk tank, can tell us.

Looking at cow signals has not only helped me manage my own pedigree herd but plays an important role in the work I do with my clients. As I often tell my clients to look afresh at their cows, we can then focus on what can be achieved on farm to help cow flow and comfort without necessarily adding cost.


Fig. 1 shows cows in the close up dry period feeding through a standard diagonal feed fence. Having observed the cows I felt intakes were being restricted and more timid cows were being blocked from the feed rail. To ensure that these cows had the best start in their lactation, it was agreed that the feed rail would be replaced with a single bar, set six inches further forward, which I knew would help the cows to consume more of their dry cow diet. It was important to set the feed rail at the correct height, as we didn't want to see cows rubbing their necks as they push to get their feed, an example of which can be seen in Fig. 2.

Cows never lie figures

The client saw a difference in his cows after the feed rail was replaced, the dry cows were a lot happier at the feed fence. Their intakes jumped up by 1.5kg/DM. Some of the cows were also moved out of this group to reduce the pressure on space. The cows are looking fuller and more content, which I believe is helping them calve down better. There was minimal cost involved in switching the feed rails, but the change in the cows have certainly been evident.

Cow comfort

For cows housed in stalls, we shouldn't see cows standing in cubicles any longer than a minute on entering. If I see that, I often question why? It frequently comes down to comfort and or cubicle dimensions. During the course we looked at a good substitute to traditional sand which can make manure handling difficult - a mix of straw with limestone which can be used to create a comfy, healthy deep bed. The limestone helps reduce mastitis microbes. This is something that may work for some UK dairy producers and I would be happy to discuss further.

Preparing for The Great British Summer

The weather plays an important part in late Spring and summer, often causing headaches as to when we should cut for silage, but it can equally pose problems for our cows too that we need to be aware of.

Heat Stress

Even on days which are overcast with drizzly rain or are particularly humid, cows can experience heat stress when temperatures reach over 17-18ºC. Signs to look out for are cows which are breathing heavily or panting. When we start seeing these signs, we know intakes will be down as will milk yield. As outside temperatures increase over 21ºC, cows are at risk of rumen acidosis and ketosis as there is less rumen buffering with decreased saliva to the gut and loss of bicarbonate due to panting.

On farms I work with, I often make slight adjustments to the diet. Whenever feed intakes decrease due to heat stress, nutrient concentration should increase to maintain adequate intake of all required nutrients. It's important to feed higher quality forages as they can be digested faster so less heat is produced by the fermentation in the rumen.

On a practical level, there are many things that we can do to make our cows more comfortable. If possible, try to increase ventilation by removing Yorkshire boarding or perhaps install fans for a long-term solution if natural ventilation is limited. Mist or spray your cows with water in the collecting yard as another effective way of cooling them down.

Water Accessibility

Water makes up a lot of the content of milk so it is important that this is not limited. A 45+ litre cow will require over 150 litres of water per day, 60% of which she will consume following milking so the quicker she can have access to clean water the better! A cow should be able to drink 15 litres in 45 seconds and 10% of the herd should be able to drink at any one time.

When walking the cows check the water is clean, and that water replenishes quickly. Try to ensure troughs are accessible as cows return from the parlour and that there is plenty of space.

Bringing Cows in from the Pasture

When cows walk calmly they walk with their heads down so that they can see where they are placing their feet. Rushing cows in from pasture can increase prevalence of lameness and also disrupt the order of rank within the cows which can cause bullying, nervousness and upset.

As a Cow Signals Master trainer I understand the importance of communication on farm between farmers, farm staff and us as ruminant specialists. By looking at the cows collectively we can discuss what is being presented and implement changes. If the whole team familiarises themselves with how the main group of cows are behaving then it is easier to pick out the cows that look out of place or that are acting differently. It is at this point that it is often easier to identify what the issue is and how to resolve it.


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