The transition from heifer to lactating cow is a big change for fresh heifers. Beyond the stress of calving and beginning lactation are the routines that must be learned as a member of the milking herd – namely entering the milking facility and navigating the fresh cow pens.

It’s well documented that fresh heifers require extra time and attention, particularly in parlor settings where they must be trained to enter and exit the barn as well as stand for milking preparation. Research summarized in a recent Miner Institute Farm Report indicated that training of these heifers prior to calving reduces their stress level in the first several weeks after calving.

In a study done at the Indian Veterinary Research Institute, researchers massaged the udders of pre-fresh heifers. Following calving, those animals let their milk down 20 seconds faster on average and had a higher milk flow rate than heifers in the control group. They also urinated and defecated less in the parlor for the first 16 days in milk.

Miner Institute’s Alexandria Bartlett described another study from Newcastle University where researchers brushed heifers for five minutes once per week for six, 13, 31, or 49 weeks leading up to calving. All heifers were brushed when unrestrained, and if the heifer resisted brushing, the researcher simply stood at the edge of the animal’s flight zone.

Although these heifers were never parlor trained, they still showed better milking behavior following calving than heifers that were not brushed. Similar to the Indian Veterinary Research Institute study, heifers that had interactions prior to calving had faster letdown and better parlor behavior in the first four weeks of milking.

“I feel that this data can serve as a good reminder that the way we manage our heifers has a measurable impact on their behavior and welfare,” Bartlett explained.

While farms don’t have time to brush every cow, instituting some type of training protocol might be beneficial, even if it is just running first-calf heifers through the parlor prior to calving. Remember, these animals are experiencing a number of changes all at once, and we can help to ease their stress load.

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(c) Hoard's Dairyman Intel 2024
May 9, 2024
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