News from the Rayner: Cow comfort–not just for farmers

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Source: SaskMilk

Producers who attended the 2019 Dairy Info Day identified cow comfort as a priority in the dairy industry. This aligns with the opinion of dairy farmers throughout North America. Cow comfort is not just a priority for farmers – it’s also a priority for the public. For consumers, knowing that animals are kept in comfortable environments increases their trust in the industry. We have an opportunity to study these shared values at the Rayner Center at the University of Saskatchewan.

The Rayner Center is in the early stages of developing ways to understand and change how the public perceives the dairy industry. We recently sent out a preliminary survey discussing the topic of cow comfort. While this initial survey does not contain a large sample size (n=11), we are hoping to use this information to develop a full research project in the next year.

All the participants in this initial survey were teachers who participated in guided Rayner Center tours. The tours focused on cow comfort and the many factors that contribute to it. This included the importance of a cow’s ability to rest and a clean environment. The survey was conducted using a program that allowed teachers to comment anonymously. Teachers were also allowed to comment and provide feedback on each question. A portion of the results are described below.

Rest is a priority

Rest is a major component of the cow comfort tour as time budgets for cows are critical to their health and welfare. Cow’s prioritize rest over other behaviors, including eating, and should devote half of their day to lying down. When rest isn’t an option, it can negatively impact feed intake, cow performance and health. There are several factors that can restrict a cow’s ability to rest including overstocking and quality of the resting environment.

In facilities with high stocking densities, cows have increased competition for stalls, space at the feedbunk, and restricted access to water stations. This will disrupt the daily time budgeting for a cow, decreasing feed intake and rest. This, in turn, will impact animal health and production. While the number of stalls is important, comfort of the resting area is vital to the length of time a cow spends resting. Stall comfort factors range from proper dimensions and lunge space to stall surface and depth of bedding.

Along with the above information, the cow comfort tours discussed the proAction requirements involving rest. This included talking about requirements for stocking densities (1.2 mature cows to stalls) and completing animal health assessments every other year (which includes investigating how animals are housed.) Overall, this survey revealed that consumers were unaware that encouraging cows to rest is a very high priority for farmers.

There were multiple positive comments regarding this topic. One participant included a comment which stated, “Was absolutely shocked when I saw their combination living and sleeping area. I honestly didn’t even know they had stalls. I wish we kept horses in a place like this so they can socialize more! Super neat.”

Keep it clean

Besides stall cleanliness, the overall cleanliness of a facility has an impact on both cow health and welfare. With appropriate manure removal protocols, animals can live in a clean, dry environment. Manure is a source of bacteria growth and is the cause of transmission for many diseases. A regular schedule of disinfection, manure removal and bedding changes is a vital part of decreasing pathogens in the environment. Additionally, cows need a clean surface where they walk, eat, and drink. A clean alley decreases hoof issues and lameness by decreasing bacteria levels and providing cows with better traction when walking.

The cow comfort tours addressed the importance of cleanliness, focusing on the animal assessments in proAction. Tours were educated on various manure removal systems and cleaning protocols. This focused on how things are handled at the Rayner facility. After the tour, many participants changed their responses to the question “are dairy facilities clean?” from a “No” to a “Yes”. The participant who responded with the “No” provided a comment which stated: “I wonder if all farms hold themselves to the same standards as one which allows public access.” Additionally, one who marked unsure commented, “Confused about the smell.” Overall, results were positive, and question feedback will be used to help alter tour information and presentation.

General findings

While we can’t statistically analyze the results, the initial outcomes were positive. The results of the preliminary survey revealed that at the start of the tour, only one person was aware of the term “cow comfort.” Ten of the 11 participants stated that learning about the significance of cow comfort made them feel good about the quality of animal care. All the cow comfort and cow care focused questions yielded very positive results and some good (and entertaining) feedback. One participant wrote, “Can’t believe cow comfort is an area of study, think they will ever study teacher comfort?”

The results and feedback from this preliminary questionnaire will help develop a larger project which addresses shared values between the public and dairy farmers. If you have any questions or suggestions regarding the development of this study, please contact Emily Morabito. We will provide regular updates as the project continues to develop.