Maximising cow comfort in buildings

Published 16 March 10

Three of the key things to think about when looking at improving cow comfort and welfare in your buildings are space, bedding material and ventilation, says DairyCo extension officer Richard Davies.

Space

"In the last 30 years the average black and white cow has increased in weight by 200kg. And many of these larger animals are being kept in buildings designed and built for their smaller ancestors.

"Having enough space for the cow to comfortably and without stress lie down, move about and eat and drink is crucial, whether you are housing your cows in straw yards or in cubicles.

"Ideally the cubicle must be long enough to allow the cow to rest comfortably on the floor without injury, yet short enough to ensure that urine and faecal material falls into the scraping passage and not onto the cubicle bed," says Richard.

"The cubicle must be wide enough for the cow to lie comfortably, but narrow enough to prevent her turning around. The cubicle also needs to accommodate the natural rising and lying down behavior of the cow and the cow should not come into contact with the cubicle partition in such a way that could cause injury. This is particularly important when the cow is lying down, since the last stage in this movement is uncontrolled.

"There is some discussion about the cow to cubicle allocation rate. Overstocking cubicles can lead to decreased lying times, particularly for those cows lower down the pecking order. You also have to think about the extra slurry that needs to be managed with more cows in that building and the decreased space available for the cow at the feed face and water trough.

"A paper published in the US reported that for every 10% increase in stocking rates over 80% occupancy in cubicle housing, there is a reduction of 0.73kg of milk per cow per day.  

"There would appear to be a number of convincing arguments to support the justification that there should always be more cubicles than cows and that the 5% figure quoted in many studies is relevant."

For full figures on suggested stocking rates and space requirements in both straw yards and cubicle housing see DairyCo Dairy Wizard.

Bedding

"The surface of the cubicle has many roles to fill. It must be comfortable to the cow and encourage high occupancy, it must be easy to keep clean and durable, it must prevent hock damage and other injuries and it must be cost-effective to initially install," says Richard.

"Work out of Wisconsin, which looked at 16 different bedding surfaces, found that there was not a significant difference in milk yield between the surfaces. Whilst some material were poorer for welfare, harder to manage or made the cows dirtier the overriding message is that if cubicle dimensions are right, cubicle surface is right and the bedding material is managed correctly, one system is not significantly better than another.

"In other words you need to use the bedding material compatible with things like your slurry system and level of labour input available and manage that material well in order to ensure maximum comfort," he adds.

Ventilation

"The effects of climate change on housing cannot be ignored. Average temperatures have been 0.5oC warmer than the average climate between 1961 and 1990. Warm winters have reduced the numbers of frosts (hard to believe after the winter we're only just emerging out of!), while warm summers have included record temperatures," says Richard.

"By 2050, it has been concluded that the UK will be between 1 and 2oC warmer than the present levels, suggesting that animal housing needs to be designed to take account of the rising risk of thermal stress.

"More than half the existing cattle buildings in the country have inadequate ventilation. Natural ventilation is the least troublesome, most efficient and least expensive system for providing an optimum environment within a building. The aim of the ventilation system must be to provide a continuous stream of fresh air to every housed animal at all times of the day or night. Buildings will naturally ventilate best when they are sited at right angles to the prevailing wind direction.

"You want to reduce the amount of moisture in cattle accommodation across the board as bugs thrive on moisture. Think about things like putting sand under calf bedding to lock moisture into the bedding. Make sure farm yards drain rain water away from housing, put in a simple drain if you need to.

"Respitory disease is spread by air particles. In four minutes 99% of all virus particles are dead in normal fresh air conditions, but in a muggy environment they last four times as long.

"Stale air hugely increases the probability of spreading infection but fresh air is a great antivirus agent and you want to encourage the right amount of it to enter your building. This is where the stack effect, which works on simple principles, comes in," Richard Davies explains.

"All cattle give off radiant heat and as the air is heated it rises. If there is an exit in the right place, usually the roof, it will leave the building. Then negative pressure inside the building will draw clean air into it from the sides. A well ventilated building needs enough space to draw the right amount of fresh air in and push the right amount of stale hot air out.

"Getting the balance between enough openings in a shed to draw in fresh and push out stale air and excluding harsh weather means you need to consider options such as covered openings in roofs and space boarding and Yorkshire boarding," he says.

"Air speed is also important.  Whilst dairy cattle can tolerate pretty low temperatures without too much problem the real problems develop when the animals are put in drafts, as this causes stress.

"DairyCo Dairy Wizard gives you information about the optimum environmental conditions in which to house cows as well as ideas on how to improve ventilation in existing buildings.

"Always remember to future proof when thinking about the design and requirements of a new building," stresses Richard. "As much as possible build for the herd you hope to have in 10 or even 20 years time. Talking to AI companies it looks like there has been a swing away from breeding away from cow stature, so we probably won't see the size of cows increasing much in the future. So we've got a good idea for the size of the cow of the future we are building for but take into account herd expansion plans."

Call 02476 478695 or email publications@dairyco.org.uk to order the DairyCo Dairy Wizard, which includes a pdf of our booklet Housing the 21st Century Cow.

Richard Davies is the DairyCo extension officer for North Wales, he can be contacted on: 07966 237841 / 01824 790214, or email:  richard.davies@dairyco.org.uk.

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