It is more than 20 years since two Dutch vets – Joep Driessen and Jan Hulsen did their first CowSignals workshop. These workshops aim to educate farmers, vets and advisors on cow welfare, its role in disease prevention and improving returns.
CowSignals workshops remain popular with dairy farmers and a series has recently been held by the UK Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) on host farms in the UK. UK vet, Owen Atkinson, Founder of the Dairy Veterinary Consultancy, has run several.
“The workshops bring together a lot of common-sense advice,” says Mr Owen. “We can learn from the behaviour of the individual cow and the herd to improve management of the latter and her environment. It is about looking, thinking and acting. We are helping farm staff to observe the cow’s body language and how the cow and herd interact.”
We can learn from the behaviour of the individual cow and the herd to improve management of the latter and her environment.
Staff can often develop what Mr Atkinson terms owner blindness – not seeing the obvious because they are so used to it. “But as part of the training we develop check lists, which help. A nutritionist may be focused on muck and cows’ sorting feed, a farmer on heat detection while a geneticist may look at conformation. It is about broadening the things they normally look for.
Workshop for the welfare of cows
- A typical workshop will start by outlining CowSignals concepts. These include the ‘Six Freedoms of Pasture’ – against which a cow’s environment can be assessed when housed. These are air, light, space, rest, feed and water (see panel).
- Next, participants are encouraged to observe cows by standing in a feed passageway and looking at their distribution. “Are they tight? Are there many ‘waiting cows’? Are there conflicts? Are cows getting harassed or asserting their dominance?
- We then zoom in a bit. Have cows got hock lesions? What proportion have a body condition score of less than 2.5 or more than 3.5? How do they rise and get out of cubicles? How much space is there is for cows at feed barriers, is feed heating up and are cows sorting feed?
- We then focus on one less dominant cow, looking at signals like respiration rate, cleanliness, body condition score, rumen fill and presence of lesions which could indicate problems.
Listing what’s going well and what could be better helps in drawing up an action checklist for the farm, says Mr Atkinson. “The benefit for the host farm is they have 12 pairs of eyes looking at their cows and suggesting ideas for them to run with.”
Create enough space
A key area often overlooked is space, he says. “Space is important for expression of natural behaviour, freedom of movement, reducing hierarchical stress, ensuring good feed intakes and reducing problems from excessive moisture, heat and slurry. “More space means there is less slurry as it is more spread out, important for foot health.”
A typical amount of space in UK housed herds is between 6m² and 8m² per cow, but 10m² per cow is a very reasonable aspiration for modern housing, of which approximately 3-3.5m² will be lying area, says Mr Atkinson.
“How this space is configured will, to a large extent, govern how effectively the shed works and how good ‘cow-flow’ is. For example, there should be no dead ends, no tight corners and no congestion points.
“Extra width should be given in the feed areas or around milking robots as these are high congestion areas where dominance behaviour by certain cows has the greatest potential for damage.”
Each extra hour of lying time from nine to 10 hours up to a maximum of around 12 hours allows a cow to produce a further litre of milk.
Insufficient space leads to ‘waiting cows’, explains Mr Atkinson. “These are cows not standing and eating or lying down chewing their cud. They are waiting to do something different – either to find a comfortable place to lie down, or to go to the feed barrier to eat. There should be fewer than 15% ‘waiting cows’ at any time.”
Know the daily routine
How a cow spends her time – the time budget concept – is important for health, welfare and productivity. For 12 out of 24 hours, she should be lying down. Eight to 10 hours of this lying time should be spent chewing cud. It is done in aliquots of time so no more than one hour at each aliquot, explains Mr Atkinson.
“The next biggest activity is eating – a housed cow will spend four to five hours doing this but it is the number of bouts is key. Cows with lower dominance may feed in three bouts but ideally it will be done in seven to eight bouts throughout the day. Cows have evolved to eat little and often, maintaining a steady rumen pH and better rumen efficiency. Too few bouts can lead to acidosis.”
Fewer bouts can result from insufficient feed space at the right time, says Mr Atkinson. “A farmer may go into the shed at 10pm and see lots of empty feeding space, but cows are herd animals and all want to eat at the same time and lie down at the same time. If there are only 100 cubicles for 110 cows, they are not getting 12 hours’ lying time. “Each extra hour of lying time from nine to 10 hours up to a maximum of around 12 hours allows a cow to produce a further litre of milk.”
One way to increase space is to reduce stocking rate, or for farmers unwilling to do so, build more shed space, or create an outdoor loafing area – a low-cost solution, suggests Mr Atkinson. “An outdoor loafing area can take the pressure off shed space. Some farmers simply open the doors and erect electric fencing to create the loafing space.”
Six Freedoms of Pasture
- Water – 50-115 litres/day.
- Trough surface area – 1sq.m for every 60 cows. 10cm of trough space/cow.
- Light – 200 lux for 16 hours/day.
- Air – 0-15°C. Over 22°C leads to panting.
- Rest – Cows sleep for only 20 minutes/day but must lie down for at least 12 hours/day.
- Space – 10 sq.m/cow. Cows need space to socialise and establish hierarchies. Need feed space of 66-70cm/cow. Where feed space is less than 60cm a cow, dominant cows will adversely affect other cows’ intakes. Calculate by cow numbers rather than stall numbers as sheds can be highly stocked.
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Learning from a Holstein herd in Scotland
Sandy Milne, director of Robert Milne, farms at East Pitforthie, near Brechin, Angus, Scotland. The 500ha farm is arable and dairy, with 405 cows plus youngstock. The Holstein herd is year-round calving, with three times a day milking. Average yield is 11,500 litres with 4% fat and 3.25-3.3% protein.
Mr Milne likes to give staff opportunities to keep up to date with training. “We wanted to offer staff an insight into thinking from a cow’s viewpoint so we recently hosted an AHDB CowSignals workshop led by Owen Atkinson of Dairy Veterinary Consultancy.”
One of Mr Milne’s concerns has been clinical mastitis. “Although we have good cell counts, clinical mastitis is a problem we want to improve on. We use a straw yard for freshly calved cows which can become overstocked. Owen explained that cows can pick up E coli which doesn’t necessarily show as mastitis until further through their lactation. It has focused our minds on never overstocking as this is partially responsible.”
He is also looking at cubicles for youngstock, currently housed in straw yards, so the transition is less stressful when they enter the herd. And he is pushing up feed more often to encourage cows to visit more frequently and discourage sorting.
The workshop was very insightful and makes you look at what you are doing from a different perspective.
Mr Atkinson commented that cow flow is good through the shed which was erected in 2003/4. “He was complimentary, saying it was ahead of its time which was nice to hear,” says Mr Milne. “We would like to look into putting down rubber in the feeding and collecting area.
“It is too early to say whether the changes will deliver more profit, but the evidence points to an improvement if we carry out these measures. The workshop was very insightful and makes you look at what you are doing from a different perspective. We can look at the cow’s daily routine from her point of view and how we can make her more comfortable and productive.”