Observing cow behavior to make improvements


Dan McFarland, Penn State ag engineer, said time-lapse photography is valuable for troubleshooting barn issues and improving facility management, but to get the best use from this technology, farm managers should be familiar with typical cow behavior.

“Cows spend about 10 to 14 hours a day resting, whether they’re housed in free-stalls, tie-stalls, bedded pack or a compost bedded pack,” said McFarland. “If there’s a dry, comfortable resting area they can use, they’ll find it and use it properly.” Quality resting areas result in reduced stress on feet and reduced lameness, fewer injuries, cleaner cows, improved milk production and increased longevity.

McFarland explained how locomotion scoring can be an indicator of how well stalls are used or if there’s reluctance or refusal to use stalls. Hock assessments indicate the condition of the stall bed and bedding practices, and hygiene scoring indicates stall bed management and alley cleaning.

In discussing sizing for cow stalls, McFarland likes to see a structure that allows the largest cow to get into the stall with all four feet on the stall surface. Her backbone should be level, front and rear legs square under her and perhaps just touching the neck rail. “If she’s in this position, I’m confident she can go into a reclining position comfortably and also rise when she needs to,” he said. “If a cow is standing in a stall with her head above the rail, pressing hard against it, perching half in or half out of the stall or standing diagonally in the stall, it’s an indicator that the neck rail is either too low or too far back.”

One observation dairy managers can make with the help of time-lapse cameras is whether cows are spending enough time resting. McFarland described cows’ four most common resting positions: “The short position is where her head is back on her ribs. This is her deepest slumber and usually occurs an hour and a half or more during the day. In the narrow position, she’s laying vertically with one or both of her front legs extended forward. In the wide position, she’s turned a little more laterally with the front and rear leg extended to the side.” In the long position, the cow is laying vertically with her legs tucked under.

Proper positioning means cows are up on the resting surface of the stall and not hanging off the back. Without enough resting space, cows adopt a restless, unsettled posture with more rear leg movement that can turn into hock abrasions and swelling. When a cow is properly on the stall surface, preferably with four to six inches ahead of the rear curb, she’s in a more restful posture and leg movement almost stops. She is also more likely to bring her tail up onto the stall rather than letting it hang in the alley.

Cows standing in any kind of stall should have a level backbone with front and rear legs square under them. Photo by Sally Colby

Cows’ resting behavior is cyclical, with lowest stall use one hour after milking because a high percentage of cows are at the feeding area. “After that one hour is a good indicator of stall use,” said McFarland. “There’s a sharp increase during the next few hours of stall use and stall use is usually high during the night and early morning. Cameras can show this.”

In one study, McFarland used time-lapse cameras to record cow activity on a farm that was considering stall bed improvements. Cows were on worn-out mattresses with a light layer of sawdust bedding. McFarland recorded cow behavior a week prior to improvements and noted stall use issues including the incidence of legs off the stall bed as well as perching and alley standing.

A bedding retainer was added to the back of the stalls and bedding was increased to three inches of sand. The farmer reported average stall use improved after the bedding retainer and sand were added, and the cows appeared to be in more restful postures without legs hanging off the back of the stalls. Also notable was better usage of the outside row of stalls, which had been a concern prior to improvements.

In another segment of time-lapse footage, McFarland noted that almost all stalls were being used but a lot of cows were at the feed bunk. “Don’t be fooled by overstocking,” he said. “There’s a lot of competition for stalls – a lot of aggression. The group standing at the feed bunk is first to go to milking center, and when they return to the barn, they walk by the feed in favor of finding a stall to lie down.”

Time-lapse cameras can reveal deficiencies in feeding areas. Feed should be available to cows 21 hours a day, with TMR delivered two or more times each day. “It’s important to keep feed within reach – pushback is needed,” he said. “One of the recommendations of Dennis Armstrong, University of Arizona, is for half-hour pushups two hours post-feeding. It only takes 20 to 30 minutes for the first cows at the feed bunk to sort and push feed far enough away so the next cows that come up to the feed can’t reach it easily.” Armstrong suggested for the two hours post-feeding, feed should be pushed up every half hour in a two-hour period.

“Focus on when the cows want to come up to eat and not how often you’re pushing feed back,” said McFarland. “Accommodate their behavior.”

In discussing adequate feeding space, McFarland says 28.8 inches is the minimum feed space per cow. In facilities with less space, fewer cows can access the bunk when feed is delivered. “The pile of feed needs to be higher, wider or put down more often so cows all have equal access,” he said. “Cows prioritize rest and will choose to rest rather than eat when both lying time and feeding time are limited.”

Since farmers can view time-lapse photography frame by frame, McFarland suggested reviewing footage at certain times of the day and using screenshots to count cows for a better idea of what’s going on during a given time. For example, cows in free-stalls often stand in anticipation of going to the parlor, so that isn’t a good time to evaluate standing.

Time-lapse photography can be an excellent tool in evaluating cow behavior and facility management, but managers must be familiar with typical cow behavior and remain objective when making observations. “Abnormal behavior becomes normal if repeated over and over,” he said. “Record before and after improvements so you can see if there’s a difference. Expect to be surprised – there’s always something that comes up in videos that might surprise you.”

by Sally Colby

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