Video opens eyes to cow comfort

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NORTH CANTON, Ohio – Several years ago, the word “ergonomics” became the workplace buzz word. What’s the right desk and chair height, the proper height for your computer screen, the best angle for your keyboard?

Even on the dairy farm, producers didn’t use the term “ergonomics,” but followed the trend, installing things to ease and please workers.

Today, Neil Anderson, a veterinarian in the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, is still using the word ergonomics, but he’s using it to describe the work environment of the cow, not her human caretaker.

Anderson was in Ohio March 7 to present his work at the Northeast Ohio Dairy Management Conference held in North Canton. Approximately 100 milk producers and dairy industry representatives attended the conference.

All about cow comfort.

Thinking about ergonomics – a fancy word for cow comfort – and how cows use the facilities humans design got Anderson wondering: How do dairy cows act in the barn when no one’s looking?

To answer his question, he started making what his wife affectionately calls “girlie movies” – videos of cows.

Anderson has viewed hundreds of hours of videos taken by stationary camcorders he’s placed in barns across Ontario. What he’s seen on his TV screen sheds light on cow behavior, barn design and management practices.

“Barns are full of compromises,” Anderson said. Producers try to skimp on stall size, bunk space, waterers, feeding procedures, he explained, only to lose money in the long run.

“You can either save now and pay later or pay now and save later.”

Anderson wandered through herds of dairy cows on pastures and observed their positions at rest and their actions. When he applied his field observations to the barn videos, he easily spotted barn designs that challenge a cow’s natural inclinations – waterers that are too high, stalls that are too short or too narrow, tie stalls with chains too short, stall surfaces too hard.

The result is often cows who won’t lie down or can lie down but don’t have enough room to stretch out. The result is also cows with udders in the gutter, standing with front feet in the stalls and rear feet in the alleys.

And the ultimate result, Anderson said, is less milk production because of feet and leg injuries, increased stress and mastitis and shorter time in the herd.

“When you’re deprived of rest, you don’t perform your best,” the veterinarian said. “I think cows are the same.”

Farmers making changes to stalls after seeing Anderson’s video of their barns have increased resting times of cows, some achieving resting times of more than 14 hours for individual cows. In contrast, Anderson said cows in poorly designed stalls aren’t even resting 10-11 hours.

He rolled the time-lapse videos for the Ohio producers to watch some of the barn scenes and there was a lot of interest in his presentation.

What he recommends.

Anderson said producers who have watched the videos are making changes in their barn designs. They’re building open front freestalls, raising and repositioning the neck rails (50 inches above the mattress), making stalls wider and longer (16 feet when head-to-head and 9 feet from the alley to wall in single row) and changing the position and style of brisket restraint (switching to a 5-inch PolyPillow).

In tie stall barns, producers are building longer and wider stalls and open front stalls, placing tie rails higher above the bed and forward of the manger curb, and making longer tie chains.

“You’ll find those ignorant cows and stupid heifers will get smart real quick in the right stall,” Anderson said.

About the Author

Farm and Dairy Editor Susan Crowell has been with the paper since 1985, serving as its editor since 1989. Raised on a farm in Holmes County, she is a graduate of Kent State University.You can follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/scrowell and follow Farm and Dairy at http://twitter.com/farmanddairy. You can also find her on Google+ and Facebook. More Stories by Susan Crowell

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