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Access is almost as important as productive ability in determining the potential of any field system to support milk production. To maximise the use of grazed grass on any system cows must be able to get to the fields as efficiently as possible, using the arteries of the farm - access routes.
A great deal of research has been done in recent years to design the ideal farm track for dairy cattle:
- Good planning of the overall layout of farm tracks for the most effective use is essential to get maximum benefit for the minimum cost. A 5 metre track of which 4m is surfaced will enable good flow for up to 200 cows. Each additional 100 cows would require an extra 1m width.
- Tracks ideally should not be sited in areas where more wear may occur or higher levels of maintenance would be required, such as behind hedges, in hollows or in heavily-shaded areas.
- The quality of the surface along which cows have to walk is paramount. A variety of materials may be used to construct a track, but the surface should not consist of sharp stones, rubble or gravel, even though these materials may be used in the construction of the track base.
- Cow tracks must be properly maintained and not routinely used by farm machinery, which is likely to damage them. Fences should be sited so that the maintenance of drains and ditches is made easier.
- Gateways, narrow tracks and the areas surrounding water troughs require special attention as they are often covered with sharp stones, rubble or gravel and are liable to become muddy in wet weather. These areas can be improved by the used of materials which makes the surface more durable and better-drained. Poorly-drained soil and wet areas can allow hoof horn to become soft and more prone to injury, disease or perforation by sharp stones.
- Drainage is an important aspect of the track's design, to avoid damage from the build-up of wet areas and mud that will also be a supportive environment for disease-causing pathogens. A 'crown' needs to be formed in the track surface so that water drains away easily.
Even the best cow tracks require maintenance, and poorer tracks can be improved by remedial work. Signs of cow track problems can include:
- High levels of lameness during the grazing period.
- Mobility problems linked with sole and white line damage.
- Evidence of water erosion problems on tracks, or poor drainage on track surfaces such as the formation of ridges.
- Cows walking in single file, or bottlenecks in cow flow at particular points.
The DairyCo Cow Tracks booklet has comprehensive information which will aid farmers in planning, designing, constructing, maintaining and using effective cow tracks.
Visiting other farms can provide excellent ideas on track planning and construction materials.
Seeing tracks working in practice is the best way of assessing their suitability. Before constructing new permanent tracks it is advisable to develop temporary tracks to help establish the best location and value for the farming system.