Decrease of dairy farms means more need for cow comfort

Research has found a trend suggesting the more comfortable the cow, the more milk it produces.

Correction: A cutline for the last photo of this article incorrectly defined heifers. Although heifers are most commonly referred to as young cows that have not yet given birth, they are also young cows in the lactation following the first calving. The heifers pictured have given birth and therefore produce milk.

.Years later, Endres, a University animal science professor, continues to spend her time with cows, researching what makes them comfortable.

Her research has found a trend suggesting the more comfortable the cow, the more milk it produces, which for some cows could mean up to an extra gallon per day of production.

“It’s a win-win,” Endres said. “You’re producing more milk while making the cows more comfortable.”

As the number of Minnesota dairy farms has decreased in recent years, increasing milk production has become paramount, said Neil Broadwater, a University extension professor.

“Every year in recent history has shown a decline in the number of dairy farms,” Broadwater said.

He said as dairy producers continue to increase the pounds of milk per cow per year, the cows have an increasing demand for comfort.

“It’s health, it’s comfort, it’s realizing that taking care of the cow is the most important thing for a dairy operation,” he said.

Endres spent most of the past five years on farms across the state, observing approximately 5,600 cows and their level of comfort.

While cow comfort has been discussed among farmers and researchers for a couple of decades, Endres’s research has focused on several specific factors, including the size and surface of cow beds.

Endres said it’s important for cows to fit adequately in their beds and have enough cushion and traction to stand up or lie down without stressing their legs.

Some options for farmers include sand bedding, mattresses, or compost bedding, shifted twice daily.

Endres said research regarding cow comfort has been done for several years in Europe and Canada, but has been limited in the United States until recently.

She said she has also been following the handling of cows.

One study found that loud yelling from a farmer can be almost as harmful to a cow’s stress as electric shocks, she said, causing a decrease in milk production.

Cow comfort is not only important for milk production, but for the cow’s general health.

Broadwater said dairy producers are receptive to research, ideas and successes of other dairy farmers.

“Dairy producers certainly understand the importance of cow comfort,” he said, “because the cow is the one generating revenue on the dairy farm.”

Farmers looking to upgrade facilities pay close attention to the University’s research, Tom Dolan, an extension educator who works with dairy farmers around the state, said.

“Those little things that make a small percentage differences will pay off in the end because the more comfortable the cow is, the more milk it’s going to produce,” he said.

The University’s cow-comfort research goes beyond Minnesota dairy producers.

Dolan said he’s been involved with projects that inform other nations, like Zambia and Mozambique, of the University’s dairy research.