Cow behaviour and comfort

There are many aspects of the cow's housing and management systems that can affect production and welfare.

Cow behaviour

A good understanding of cow behaviour is necessary if a housing system is to meet the cows' needs. Personnel involved with designing and building cattle buildings, and those managing cows, need a good understanding of cow behaviour.

Providing adequate space for cows to socialise will allow subordinate cows to distance themselves from the dominant cows.   It is known that the establishment of a social hierarchy within a group can take anywhere from 3 to 7 days which can prove stressful especially to heifers. Mixing of groups will also interrupt the establishment of the social hierarchy. When reduced space is combined with constant re-grouping, there is often a marked increase in aggression, partly as cows have to compete for feed and resting space.

Stocking densities at the feeding area should allow all cows to feed at the same time thereby reducing aggressive competition and ensuring subordinate cows have access to feed. 

Competition at the feeding area can be minimised by using a feed face with individual feeding spaces separated by barriers.

Cow Flow

A basic understanding of animal behaviour is important when designing dairy cow housing to ensure good cow flow. Cows have a tendency to move towards light but are sensitive to harsh contrasts of light and dark within housing facilities. Designing or improving buildings to minimise changes in light, flooring and slope will improve cow flow. Cattle are less sure footed when walking on downward slopes and prefer to move up gradual inclines rather than steep slopes. Cubicle passageways should be wide enough for cows to pass one another easily. 

Cow hygiene

The lying surface of a housing system can influence udder health. The rate of new mastitis infection increases with the number of bacteria at the teat end. With regard to mastitis, it is the cleanliness of the udder and lower leg that are vitally important.

It is imperative to ensure that whatever housing system is selected, the system is designed in such a way that accounts for cow hygiene. 

A 700kg dairy cow will produce in excess of 60 litres of slurry each day. To ensure lying surfaces remain hygienic, cubicles must be correctly designed and adequately sized. Straw yards must be stocked at the appropriate rate with adequate loafing areas away from the bedded surface. 

As the stocking rate within any housing system increases, the amount of slurry deposited per m2 increases. This has a direct effect on the cleanliness of the cow's feet, legs and flanks. The consistency of the slurry also has a marked effect on the cleanliness and hygiene within a housing system. This is particularly noticeable in straw yards. As the consistency of the dung increases, there are fewer tendencies for the dung to spread and it is easier for animals to remain clean. 

When animals are housed on straw yards, management of animals showing signs of oestrus is important. Two or three animals exhibiting oestrus on a covered yard can rapidly turn a previously clean, dry bedded surface into a quagmire.

Space allowance

The more you limit the space that cows have in the housing system you provide, the less choice the animal has to avoid unfavourable conditions.

  • The space allowance for cattle housed in groups should be calculated taking account of:
    • the whole environment
    • the age, sex, liveweight and behavioural needs of the stock
    • the size of the group
    • whether any of the animals have horns.

The accommodation should provide enough space for a subordinate animal to move away from a dominant one. It is important to provide as comfortable an area as possible, so that the animals can lie down for as long as they want and have enough space to stand up again.

British Standards (5502), indicate that the total loafing area (exclusive of lying areas) must provide a space allowance of 3.0m2 per cow.

Loafing areas

A loafing area is an area which cows can use for behaviours other than feeding or lying. Building recommendations and the Red Tractor Farm Assurance Dairy Scheme require an adequate loafing area of at least 120% of the cubicle lying area. A loafing area is defined as the passageways (other than those not immediately adjacent to feeding areas).

Loafing areas provide the space for animals to interact and to show oestrus behaviour without fear of collision with cubicle partitions or walls.


Related Links & Publications