Cow comfort and why it matters


Source: University of Minnesota Extension, Marcia Endres, Extension dairy specialist

Quick facts

  • Cow comfort is important to milk production, milk quality, reproductive efficiency, and health of dairy cows.
  • A cow’s housing and management can affect her comfort.
  • There are economic consequences to poor cow comfort.
  • Signs that a cow is uncomfortable include injuries, abrasions, swelling, lameness and disease.

What does ‘cow comfort’ mean?

A comfortable cow is one that has a good quality of life under our care. Cow comfort relates to the cow’s overall well-being including her physiological and emotional needs.

Many aspects of the cow’s environment and management affect cow comfort. These are just a few examples:

  • Appropriately designed, soft and clean resting space.
  • Protection from cold, wind, rain and sun.
  • Effective heat abatement and ventilation.
  • Proper lighting.
  • Optimum stocking density and good cow flow.
  • Access to high-quality feed and water.

Why should we focus on cow comfort?

Cow comfort is very important to milk production, milk quality, reproductive efficiency, and health of dairy cows.

There are economic consequences to poor cow comfort. “A comfortable cow is a cash cow”.

However, one reason that should make cow comfort a priority is that it is the right thing to do. We domesticated cows about 10,000 years ago so that we could harvest a wholesome food for humans. Cows should be treated with care and respect, be provided with adequate shelter, feed and water, and have an overall good and comfortable life.

Today’s cows are like high-performance athletes which makes them more sensitive to negative aspects of their environment or management.

Cow comfort and lameness

Lameness is an important animal welfare and economic issue on dairy farms. Poor cow comfort contributes to the occurrence of lameness by increasing the risk for the development of new cases and the time it takes for a cow to recover. The trigger factors for lameness, such as nutrition, hormonal changes at calving, infection and trauma, can all be exacerbated by poor cow comfort.

Resting space

Most cows in North America are housed in confinement facilities with free stalls or tie stalls. Stalls should be adequately designed with appropriate dimensions and have appropriate surface and bedding material to provide a comfortable resting space.

Comfortable stalls result in longer resting times and a reduction of standing time on hard concrete. This reduction in standing time can potentially reduce herd lameness incidence.

Head lunge space

A cow needs to transfer weight over the front knees and create a point of balance in order to rise on her rear legs safely and naturally. This requires her head to almost touch the ground in front of her in an area referred to as the “bob zone” when she lunges forward.

A study in Canada found a significant association between lameness prevalence and the presence of head lunge impediments. Research conducted in Minnesota found that the height of the brisket board (if greater than four inches) was a risk factor for lameness independent of the stall surface.

Stall surface

Studies have shown herds using mattress-based free stalls had a 10 percent higher prevalence of lameness compared to deep-bedded stalls with sand.

Herds using deep-bedded recycled manure solids had a 5 percent lower prevalence of lameness than herds with solids on top of mattresses.

In a study with automated milking system farms in Minnesota and Wisconsin, the prevalence of lameness was different for each type of farm.

  • Deep-bedded sand stalls (22.5%)
  • Bedded packs (19.0%)
  • Access to pasture (21.5%)
  • Mattress-based stalls (40.9%)

Within these datasets, there were mattress-based stall herds with a low prevalence of lameness, indicating that factors such as the amount of bedding placed on top of the mattresses, early detection of lameness and quick intervention could help reduce lameness incidence in herds with mattress-based stalls.

Can poor handling affect the productivity and comfort of dairy cows?

Research in the dairy, hog and poultry industries in the late 1990s and early 2000s showed that human-animal interactions can affect the productivity and well-being of farm animals.

A study in Canada showed a relationship between poor dairy cow treatment and milk production.

  • The presence of an insensitive or harsh handler increased residual milk by 70 percent and reduced milk yield about 10 percent compared with control treatment.
  • Negative behavior towards the cow can cause her to be fearful of humans. Fear is stressful and stress can affect cow productivity. Stress can also lead to immunosuppression, which can affect the health of animals.
  • Inadequate human-cow interactions can create a cycle of low animal productivity and disease.

From a cow comfort perspective, it is essential to handle cows gently. Cow handling also affects the public perception of the dairy sector.

The two fundamental rules for working with cows are slow and quiet. By following these rules the job will be done faster with the least amount of stress to the cows.