Cow signals - the six key needs

Published 22 February 10

Dairy farmers across the South West are looking at their cows with fresh eyes following a series of DairyCo events on Cow Signals.

The concept of reading cow behaviour to identify problem areas in their surroundings or routine is growing in popularity, and enabling dairy farmers to more closely meet their cows' needs, leading to increased production and lower costs.

Rachael Grigg, Cornwall extension officer for DairyCo, says the series of five events has been a great success. "One farmer said the invitation alone was enough to make him go and look at his cows. It's all about looking at things with fresh eyes, and people have gone away from the events planning to make changes to their systems as a result."

Karen Lancaster, a qualified vet and DairyCo extension officer for Cumbria and Lancashire, says that cows have six key needs - food, water, air, light, rest and space. By going into the cattle housing and assessing cow behaviour, posture and physical signs with a detached viewpoint, it is easy to identify areas that could be improved.

"Because farmers spend all day, every day, around their cows they often stop seeing the bigger picture - it is just about getting them to take a step back. By observing their cows there are many things that farmers can do very easily and cheaply that can make a big difference."

Light and ventilation are often big problems on dairy farms, as older sheds tend to be quite dark and enclosed, says Miss Lancaster. Cows need 16-18 hours of a minimum of 200 lux of light a day to maximise feed intakes and fertility, giving an increase in milk yield of up to 16%.  It is also beneficial for their fertility to provide them with 6-8 hours of less than 50 lux of light mimicking nightime.  "Daylight is the cheapest form of light available, so taking out some Yorkshire boarding or putting extra skylights in is a low cost option which also increases ventilation."

Cows should ideally spend 14 hours a day lying down, so they have to be comfortable. "A quick test is to drop to your knees at the front of the cubicle and see how comfortable it is. Look out for hock lesions - they are a good indicator of cubicle comfort and the abrasiveness of the bedding."

At any one time some 85% of cows in cubicles should be lying down, she adds. "If they are not achieving that, look at the possible reasons why." If the cows are standing half in, half out of the cubicle, the neck rail could be too far back. If their hind end is hanging over the edge of the cubicle when lying down, the brisket locator is too far back. "Often it is only minor changes that need to be made."

Another common pitfall is slippery or dirty walking surfaces in collecting yards or housing, which can result in accidents, lameness, and queuing cattle. A useful test for this is called the Ballerina Test. "Stand on the spot and try to twist round on one foot - if you get more than half way round the surface is too slippery and could need grooving."

By monitoring their cows' behaviour, farmers often pick up on illnesses or problems more quickly. It is also an opportunity to score the herd's mobility and condition, leading to further health and financial benefits. "All you have to do is go and look at what your cows are telling you, as every herd and unit is different."


Stephen and Richard Dark, who hosted one of the events at Trudnoe Farm, Mullion, Cornwall, have already made some changes as a result. "One of the main things I have done is allow the cows an eight-hour period of reduced lighting overnight to improve their fertility," says Stephen. "We're also looking at getting some of the concrete passageways grooved as they are a bit slippery in places."

With 180 cows housed over the winter, the brothers were pleased to notice how well the cows were using the mattress and sand-bedded cubicles. "If we were to add extra cubicles in the future we would just copy what we've got. We also need to give the cows a larger feeding area, so we discussed what type of manger to put in so the cows are comfortable feeding," Stephen continues.

"I have always checked the cows three or four times a day, but now I am more aware of how they are behaving and using the shed. I look at whether they are cudding well and looking full - you just have to imagine that you're a stranger looking at the unit for the first time."

Originally produced for WMN, February 2010