Comfortable Cows

Fall 2011
Comfortable cow
Comfortable livestock will be happier, healthier and more productive. English photo.

By Diane Schivera, M.A.T.

Robert Graves of Penn State University, the featured speaker at the Maine Dairy Improvement 2011 meeting, talked about cow comfort. His information applies to other livestock as well. Comfortable livestock are likely to be healthier and less stressed than uncomfortable animals – and, therefore, more productive and lucrative for your farm.

As much as we raise animals because we are fond of them, they usually do need to pay for themselves. So although I use the word “cow,” the basics of this article apply to pigs, sheep, llamas, chickens and other livestock.

This information is particularly valuable for anyone considering new construction or purchasing new equipment. Animals need a place to eat, drink, rest, act the way the species normally acts, and they need good air to breathe.

A Cow’s Point of View

Domestic ruminants evolved from prey animals. Their bodies were designed to eat and drink large quantities quickly to avoid predators. Facilities for such animals must enable them to see around themselves and have an escape from danger.

Bovines are social animals with a hierarchy in the herd. They rarely like to be alone. An animal that must be isolated will be calmer if it can still see the herd.

Cows have a 300-degree field of view and can see nearly directly behind themselves. Limiting this view with solid walls is helpful when trying to handle cows or direct their movements. They will be less likely to balk if they can’t see as many distractions.

Cows’ limited color vision gives them a heightened awareness of sudden movement and shadows. They will move readily from a darker area toward light. This too can help when arranging handling facilities.

And cows focus poorly up close and have a blind spot in front of their feet – one reason a cow stops and lowers its head when crossing gutters or other obstacles.

When handling cows, recognize their flight zone. This is described in “Temple Grandin Gives Livestock Owners an Animal’s Point of View” in the December 2005-February 2006 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.

Professor Graves said the cow is the expert. You must address every management decision from the cow’s point of view. Always be aware of how your animals are behaving. If one is standing when all the others are lying down, why is it standing? If one isn’t eating when the others are, why is that one not eating? There are reasons for these behaviors. Perhaps the cow has no comfortable place to lie down, or it hurt a leg, so lying down is difficult.

Clean, Comfortable Quarters

During the day, a cow stands to eat and drink, to be milked and to be bred. It will walk around outside even on what we consider very cold days. But a lot of the day – up to 14 hours! – is spent lying down to rest, and ruminate. The cow is also making milk when she is lying down. Blood flow to the udder increases about 50 percent during this time, so one additional hour of lying down will increase milk production by 2 pounds (16 gallons). So the cow needs a comfortable, dry, well-ventilated place to lie down.

Included in comfortable is clean. Anyone who raises livestock has probably had a “Pigpen” animal – one who is always dirty – but those animals are rare. If you feel that you could not lie down in the stall where you expect your cow to lie, the stall is not clean enough.

During new construction or renovations, remember human nature as well as cow nature. Make animals’ quarters as easy as possible to clean. We avoid things that are difficult to do.

Stall size needs to accommodate body, neck and head length plus a lunge space – what the animal needs in order to get up from lying down. A cow thrusts forward with its head down, shifts its weight to its back legs and then pushes up with its front legs.

In a tie stall barn, animals have to be able to drink and eat comfortably while in the stall. Free stall barns only have to accommodate lying down and getting up.

Two Isolation Areas

All livestock operations need isolation areas. Animals get sick and need a place to recover in peace without having to compete with the rest of the herd or flock. For some time before and after parturition (giving birth), cows also need a place to rest alone. These two types of isolation areas should NOT be the same place in the barn. In both instances the animals are under stress, but a freshening cow and its calf do not need contact with disease organisms.

Ventilation is necessary because when animals breathe they expel warm, moist air. As air cools it loses moisture to surfaces in the barn – including, possibly, bedding, a great medium for growing unwanted bacteria. Air needs to move, by natural air movement or fans, out of the barn through windows, doors or vents. This air movement will remove water and will cool the barn in summer. When planning ventilation, move air so that sick animals are at the end of the airflow and calves are at the beginning.

Check for Lameness

All animal welfare programs score lameness. A lame animal will not get to food or water as often as a healthy animal, and she is in pain, which results in a stressed system, which will reduce her production and the function of her immune system. Lame cows are also less likely to show standing heat (the stage of estrus when a cow stands to be mounted by other cows or by a bull) and will be less likely to be bred.

Walking surfaces are important for cow comfort. Cows move their 900-plus pounds on eight toes. They were designed to walk on grass or dirt. Slippery surfaces are treacherous; cows need traction, so concrete surfaces need to be roughed up or grooved.

Lameness also links back to having a comfortable place to rest. If cows lie down less, they are standing longer on those toes.

Providing Water and Feed

A lactating Holstein dairy cow can drink 30 to 40 gallons of water a day, and twice that on a hot summer day. Easy access to water is necessary for milk production. If the cow must travel far for water, her production will decrease. The cow buries her muzzle about 1 to 2 inches in the water, drawing in about 2 to 5 gallons per minute, so the refill rate of any waterer should be at least 2 gallons per minute per drinking cow. It is best to have the water level at 18 to 36 inches. Since cows often come to the waterer in groups, a good pump is essential. Waterers must also be kept clean, especially in summer when algae are more likely to grow.

Place feed 2 to 6 inches above the cow’s front feet to mimic the normal grazing position. Cows need fresh feed at least twice daily. They eat naturally at sunrise and sunset primarily, with some additional snacks during the day.

Details Matter

When evaluating your system, details are very important. If a cow is standing when she should be resting, often some small thing – even one sore toe that may be hard to spot – is stopping her.

Remember, Comfortable = Happy = Healthy = Productive = A farm that will survive.

Barn plans and stall size recommendations, with sizing for different weight animals, are available at

For more information, see Principles of Cow Comfort, Animal Handling and Movement, by John T. Tyson, P.E., Agricultural Engineer, Mifflin County Cooperative Extension, Pennsylvania; at

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