April 10 2012 08:14 AM

As producers, are we keyed in to what our cow's behavior tells us?

"Despite years of research, we still have sick cows," noted Nina von Keyserlingk, University of British Columbia, at the 2012 Herd Health and Nutrition Conference in Syracuse N.Y. Even with the herd health advances in our industry, the incidence of postcalving, including lameness, remains high.

While research exists related to many aspects of dairy production, a frequently asked question is what can we do with the information? We may know the industry benchmarks and standards to achieve, but how can we make progress when we don't know our own numbers?

"In all honesty," noted von Keyserlingk, "who better to tell us how she's coping with the environment than the cow?" Related to lameness, the environment and facilities we provide may play a major role. If we do make changes to our facilities, we need to provide adequate time for cows to habituate before writing it off as a mistake.

Specifically, von Keyserlingk highlighted research from the University of British Columbia related to the design and management of the lying area. A key take-home message was that aside from stall dimensions, bedding type and depth matter. When given access to stalls bedded with sand or sawdust in a preference test, cows familiar with sawdust spent less time lying on sand (14 hours per day versus 11). However, cows familiar with sand spent relatively equal amounts of time between the two surfaces.

Herds that used mattress saw lying time elevate when bedding was added to stalls. With no bedding, cows averaged 11.5 hours of lying time per day. Concurrently, as bedding levels rose from 2.25 pounds of sawdust to 16.8 pounds, lying time went from 12.5 hours per day to 13.5 hours per day. The incidence of hock lesions also dropped when bedding was added. "She thanks you for softer bedding," noted von Keyserlingk.

Bedding depth and maintenance also impact how much time cows spent in the stalls. For every 1-inch decline in bedding depth, cows lay down 30 minutes per day; cows spent less time lying in stalls that had not been maintained. Additionally, cows had a strong preference for lying in dry stalls. Significant reductions in lying time were seen when stalls dropped under 60 percent dry matter.

Farms that have a large variation in lying times between cows were also more likely to have lameness problems. "When variation exists, you need to figure out what the cause is and how to correct it," she added. Cows like to lie together, when stall numbers are limited or the number of usable stalls is reduced, cows will choose to sacrifice time at the feed bunk in order to have a place to lie after milking.