Factors That Influence Your Dairy Cows Behavior


Mark G. Cameron, PhD
Dairy Nutritionist
Cargill Animal Nutrition

Often a dairy producer and their nutritionist spend a significant amount of their time together on-farm discussing ingredient quality, especially as it relates to forages, and how best to formulate the lactating dairy cow’s diet. We all recognize the importance of keeping cows’ healthy so that the producer can optimize daily milk and milk component yields while minimizing metabolic disorders. However, there is growing body of published research that is focused on dairy cow behavior and how it positively or negatively influences feed intake, cow health, reproduction and milk performance. This article will highlight cow behavior research and comments from Rick Grant, Miner Agricultural Research Institute (Chazy, N.Y.) and the Animal Welfare Program, University of British Columbia (Vancouver, B.C.).

Take Home Message – Cow behavior needs to focus on creating an on-farm environment that positively influences resting, eating and ruminating.

The Miner Agricultural Research Institute has reviewed many research trials and has recommended a daily time budget (Table 1) for a typical lactating cow that meets their requirements for feeding, resting and ruminating.

Activity Time Spent/Day
Eating 5.5 hours ( 9 to 14 meals/day)

Standing or walking in alleys

(Includes grooming, rumination, other)

12 – 14 hours with 6 hours of rumination

2 to 3 hours

Drinking 30 minutes
Total Time Needed 21 to 23 hours

As you can see, this daily time budget emphasis the importance of creating barn conditions that allows the cow maximal time for both resting/ruminating and eating – you need to focus on allowing adequate feedbunk space (minimum 24 inches for 4 row style barn or 30 inches for face-to-face feeding) and to avoid over-stocking of freestalls . The Miner Institute observed that the dry matter intake (DMI) of lactating cows was relatively unaffected by feedbunk stocking density but the rate of eating increased with higher pen stocking density. This means that cows started to slug feed when competing for either freestall or feedbunk space; slugging feed can cause a rapid decrease in rumen pH which results in a less efficient microbial population (reduced fiber digestion and can possibly lead to milk fat depression).

Increased resting or lying time can also lead to other benefits: increased blood flow to the mammary gland (more glucose and amino acids for milk synthesis), less stress on hooves and a reduction in lameness, and fewer tired cows. Dr. Grant feels that 1 hour of additional resting time is associated with 0.91 kg per day more milk.

Animal Welfare researchers (von Keyserlingk and Weary) at the University of British Columbia published a review on the “Feeding Behavior of Dairy Cattle” and here are some key points:

1. Feeding activity peaks around dawn and dusk, cows spend very little time feeding late at night and early in the morning. Percentage of cows at the feedbunk peaked when fresh feed was fed at about 6:00 AM and 3:00 PM. There is also a peak in feeding after cows return from the milk parlor but this is a minor effect compared to the delivery of fresh feed at the bunk.

2. Increasing the feeding space from 0.50 to 1.0 meters per cow reduced by half the number of aggressive interactions between cows while feeding. This reduction in aggressive cow behavior allowed the more timid animals to increase feeding activity by 24% at the peak feeding times.

3. Using headlocks reduces the competitive interactions compared to post-and-rail barrier feedbunks with 21% fewer displacements by timid cows.

4. Regardless of type of feed barrier, feeding time decreased and inactive standing increased when stocking density at the feedbunk increased. Give fresh cows lots of room to eat – reduce competition for both feed and resting.

5. Cows with aggressive interactions at the feedbunk are more likely to have hoof health problems.

6. Sorting changes the nutritional value of the total mixed ration during the day, with NDF levels increasing as a result of feed sorting. Increasing the frequency of feed feeding from once to twice daily reduced the amount of sorting.

7. Feed intake is higher for healthy cows compared to cows diagnosed with metritis. Research precalving showed that cows with acute metritis after calving spent less time feeding before calving (day -12 to -2). The odds of severe metritis increased by 1.72 for every 10 minute decrease in feeding time during the week before calving.

In summary, it is easy to focus on balancing the ideal nutritional diet for your lactating dairy cows. However, we need to recognize and understand the importance of creating a lactating cow environment on your dairy farm that positively affects your cows’ abilities to rest, eat and ruminate.


Summer 2017


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