Soft bedding, nutritional foods plus plentiful time for rumination and resting were among the topics at the 2017 Cow Comfort Conference. Presented by Cornell Cooperative Extension’s North Country Regional Ag Team, the inaugural two-day event focused on enhancing the dairy cow environment.

Cow comfort – via barn and stall design, nutrition, reproduction, and honoring of the cow’s inherent time budget – was discussed as both an animal welfare concern and a road to greater dairy profitability. According to Dr. Kimberley Morrill and fellow dairy team member Lindsay Ferlito, the North Country Ag Team saw a need to expand upon local programming initiatives and work on a regional basis to attract top dairy professionals to address cow comfort issues. By working with dairy educators from other regions of New York, including Betsy Hicks, South Central New York Dairy Specialist, they hoped to bring current research and information to as many New York dairy producers as possible.

Designed to appeal to dairy farmers, as well as service providers who directly interact with dairy farmers on a regular basis, the conference did just that. Attracting several dozen dairy producers, along with an equal number of Extension professionals and of other industry representatives and graduate students, the 2017 Cow Comfort Conference featured presentations from specialists in dairy barn design, farm economics, dairy research, and animal care.

Using the conference’s theme of “Working with What You Have, and Looking Toward the Future,” presenters discussed retrofitting barns versus rebuilding, assessing current management practices and identifying priority areas, the reduction in milk output due to less than optimal cow environs, and emerging trends in dairy welfare.

Management Practices

Many dairy farmers are utilizing older barns. Ventilation, feed access, water availability and stall size are common issues which impact cow comfort and health, and decrease milk output. Overcrowding of facilities is very common in the Northeast, and impacts the cows’ ability to express their natural behaviors, decreasing comfort and increasing stress.

Cows have very little unscheduled time in the natural rhythms of their day, said Dr. Heather Dann of the Miner Institute. Milk output decreases significantly when cows aren’t able to get the needed 10-14 hours of lying time they naturally require. Cows will sacrifice feeding to get more resting time, so intake will drop. Rumination standing up is not of the same quality as resting rumination, either. Cows standing too long are at higher risk for lameness.

Overcrowding, so stalls are not available; uncomfortable stalls; cow dominance limiting stall use for others in the group; lameness, which means the cow takes longer to reach the parlor, the feed bunk, or the water trough; and herd management practices which keep cows from resting areas too long are some of the common concerns limiting comfort and impacting production.

Good management practices can help overcome these issues. Milk production increases of approximately 3.7 pounds of milk, per cow each day, for every hour’s increase in lying time per day, can be expected, Dann noted.

Economics

Overstocking allows producers to expand the herd without adding to the fixed costs. Even though overcrowding leads to less milk per cow, the additional cows – up to a point – will add enough milk, at a lower per cow cost, to compensate.

But the economics of milk production are more complicated, explained Albert De Vries from the University of Florida.

The marginal profit of adding another cow to a 100 percent stocked pen is a function of the added milk output from the new cow, minus the decrease in milk output which occurs to all cows in the pen due to overcrowding. How much milk loss actually occurs is not well agreed upon in the research. The marginal profit  is not only dependent upon the yield loss seen with overcrowding, but also varies with the price of milk. “Milk price will have a major effect on optimal stocking density,” De Vries said.

Welfare

Emily Yeiser Stepp, director of the FARM Animal care Program, National Milk Producers Federation explained the program’s scope and addressed emerging animal welfare topics — a subject that on the mind on many consumers and retailers. The use of antibiotics, GMO crops, debudding cows, dairy animal housing and calf care are topics of interest which the industry will need to address.

It is anticipated that subsequent Cow Comfort Conferences will address various aspects within the overarching scope of the topic each year, Dr. Morrill said. Bedding alternatives, barn and stall construction, feed and nutrition, or handling and transportation practices are some examples of topic areas around which future conferences could focus.