Archive: Herd Hierarchy

Published 10 September 09

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DairyCo technical extension officer, Piers Badnell, looks at the importance of cow comfort in combating problems caused by herd hierarchy.

While the top 30 per cent in the herd will look after themselves, the bottom 30% can find themselves relegated to the least comfortable cubicles, the poorest feed, the least water and the lowest levels of social interaction and considerable time waiting for high order cows to finish in order for them to eat, drink and rest. Cow comfort can be worth 500-1000 litres per cow, so ensuring good levels of comfort across the herd through careful building design and layout can have a significant impact on production through lost DMI..  A subordinate cow will have to wait and will get the worst of everything, and this will often manifest itself with a rapidly decreasing body condition score. The most 'unlucky' cows can lose two condition scores in the first 80 days in milk, how much will it cost to put the weight back on this cow? What about the effect on her fertility?

The best place to start when thinking about cow comfort is to decide if all of your cows can get the rest, food and water and the social interaction they need. The ideal cow will need to rest for around 14 hours a day, and eat and drink for about six hours; there will be two hours for milking and two hours for socialising. How close can all yours cows get to this ideal?

UK Five Freedoms, freedom from:

  • Thirst, hunger & malnutrition
  • Discomfort
  • Pain injury and disease
  • Fear and distress
  • Express normal behaviour


High welfare standards are vitally important, not only for customer perception of the industry, but because if a cow is not well looked after then she is never going to be profitable. The UK five freedoms are a good place to start to assess cow welfare. 

Take a careful look at the building layout to see if there is a way to help lower order cows get access to feed, water, or cubicles, without needing to find her way past bullying high order cows. Dominant cows will take feed first if space is limited, so avoid dead ends in the buildings and try to find ways to ensure that subordinate cows can have alternative access to feed and avoid the 'bully'.  Make sure too, that the feed stance of the cows is comfortable, and not causing damage. For example, a barrier that is too low can cause severe calluses, and if feeding is difficult in any way the cow is not going to maximise her DMI or her output.

Many of the factors that apply to feed also apply to water, and good access to water will really drive DMI.  On a 40 per cent dry matter ration, at 18 degrees, a 20l cow will need 62l water, whilst a 40l cow requires 112l. Again, make sure dominant cows can't block all access and think about escape routes. 

Light and air flow are also important and can have a significant impact on cow comfort. Natural light is the cheapest, but roof lights will have a 10% year on year reduction in their effectiveness if they are left uncleaned, so make sure they're kept clear of detritus.  

Think about the length of time that light flows into the building; ideally you need to aim for 16-18 hours a day at 200 lux. Providing up to 18 hours of light has been show to increase milk yield by 8-16%, and remember, that at under 50 lux cows will start to think it's night. Research has also shown that better light provision can help to improve fertility rates.

Poor ventilation brings with it the potential for high humidity and temperatures which mean that heat stress can be a problem even in winter.  A cow suffering from heat stress will pant to try and lose heat, a process which uses a lot of energy and has an extremely detrimental effect on output.

Rest is another highly important factor covered in the UK Five Freedoms. A cow with no mobility problems should lie down within one minute of reaching her cubicle. Poor cubicles and housing design can cause physical trauma to cows and result in calluses, wounds and bacteria ingression, which, in Holland, has been shown to be the second biggest cause of abortion after Neospora. If a cow is standing it is usually because she is not confident about lying down, possibly because the cubicles are uncomfortable or not easily accessible. An extra hour of lying time can mean an extra litre of milk. Thought about in financial terms, if you have 150 cows and five months of winter that can mean £6,750. 

Cows also need their own 'personal space'. Small feeding passages can mean that 'bully' cows will inevitably have access to the best space, and a low order cow will not have the confidence to push in to feed as that will limit her flight space. A lack of space can lead to stress and conflict in the herd, so opening the ends of the shed and allowing cows to have access to loafing areas will lower this density and allow social interaction, for example, better bulling behaviour. It will also give low order cows an opportunity to feed, drink, and rest and escape the 'bully' cow.