“Seeing” Ways to Make Cows Happier – with Better Outcomes

Lee Gross, FYP Consulting

Lee Gross FYP Consulting

In our team’s experience the best dairy calf and cow managers share a similar trait – they have a knack for seeing what the animal sees and understanding what the animal experiences.  This enables them to make appropriate changes to improve animal comfort and performance.  Fortunately, anyone and everyone on a dairy can adopt this management trait.  Dr. Dave Prigel ([email protected]) is an animal welfare coach at FYP Consulting.  He helps dairy producers improve animal happiness and performance by “seeing” life from the cow’s perspective.

I had a conversation recently with Dr. Prigel about how to use simple observation to understand what cows experience and improve their happiness.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Lee Gross

Talking about happy cows reminds me of the TV commercials that my non-California friends (like you!) made fun of.  But happy cows are a real thing with both ethical and economic impacts.  What are those impacts?   And how do we measure cow happiness?  They don’t like answering surveys any more than people do!

Dr. Dave Prigel  

Happy cows are a perception that differs from one consumer to the next, and to some extent from one farmer to the next.  Instinctively all animals want two things: to be safe and have plenty to eat.  I believe that these two basic needs drive a cow, or house pet, to behave in the manner seen each day.  I will let everyone decide what they want to do about their house pet’s happiness, but with dairy cows it is possible to relate happiness to the two basic categories of safety and food.  I use the word food deliberately.  We think feed – the cow sees food!


Tell us more about safety and food from the cow’s perspective.


Safety – the one huge issue for cow happiness through safety is CONSISTENCY.  Cows want to live the same boring life from one minute to the next.  I am sure everyone reading this article has seen a cow react in an unreasonable and perhaps dangerous manner to the slightest change in their environment.  This can be as simple as a jacket on a gate, an employee who is unexpectedly loud, or an employee in a hurry.  The response from a cow in these examples could be freezing in place or reacting in a way that causes harm to the cow herself.  Creating and maintaining a CONSISTENTLY safe environment goes a long way in keeping cows happy and smiling.  Try to “see” safety from the cow’s perspective.  Do they feel safe as they move about the dairy?  Thinking of your cow’s safety will put a lot of tools in the proverbial cow happiness toolbox.

Food – the other huge issue for cow happiness is CONSISTENT food.  I know this thought process lacks in originality, but I am a simple man!!  The first building block of a consistent diet is doing whatever is in your control to ensure that each component of your cow’s diet is of the utmost quality.  It is also a great benefit if you are able to ensure that forage changes are well planned and few and far between. These factors are nothing new but when it comes to forage quality there is always room for improvement.

Other key issues related to food consistency are feeding times, feed push up times, removing uneaten feed, environmental temperatures, and the myriad other cow comfort opportunities.  What does the cow “see” when they’re hungry?  Thinking of a cow’s food puts more tools in your cow happiness toolbox.


Let’s talk about hard data that can indicate cow happiness.  What are those data points and how are they used?


When considering hard data, the dairy record management system (DHI, DairyComp etc.) contains a wealth of information that is ready to be put to work to benefit the cows.  Let’s use lameness as an example since it’s a good indicator of cow happiness – lame cows are miserable!  Pull your team together (herdsman, vet, nutritionist, hoof trimmer) to identify written short and long-term lameness goals.  Have the team agree on the parameters they wish to use for monitoring.  Follow that by training staff to perform and record mobility scores – then monitor those records for improvement in mobility as well as culling due to lameness.


It’s always easy for us consultants to suggest things that end up taking a lot of time for people on the dairy.  “Easier said than done” as the saying goes.  How do producers get these things done without someone on the dairy getting completely overloaded?


Excellent point.  I know of no dairy farmers, key employees, nutritionists, veterinarians etc. who  realistically have spare time.  As the team plans, they must consider implementation.  Who is responsible to collect the data and who will monitor results?  Who has the time to perform the tasks?  Whose day will be longer due to the extra work?  Many well-intended plans fail because no one is responsible.  If the task is important assign it to a specific individual(s) and make sure they have the time and tools needed to do the job well.


What’s another good data point that indicates cow happiness?


Something simple would be mapping slips and falls of cows (and employees!) on a centrally located map of the dairy.   Preventing injuries maximizes profit while treating injuries minimizes a loss.  The best time is to gather this data is when the cows are being moved.  Provide a pocket-sized notebook and pen to each employee for recording incidences, then capture that data at the end of each milking.


I’d think that to be effective and make a difference data collection like this needs to be assigned and scheduled, and not treated as a “when we have time” practice.  Do you agree?


Absolutely! The leadership team must be enthusiastic and drive the entire process.  When the staff gathers data, it needs to be emphasized how their data collection benefits the cows and employees.  It’s also important that data be routinely posted with explanations in an observable location for employees and advisors.  Everyone loves to see progress!   I believe if they know their work makes life better for the cows it allows them to focus on something outside of their daily tasks.


The upsides of improving cow happiness and welfare are clear.  Are there any downsides to observing behavior in the ways you’ve described?  Seems unnecessary to ask but new practices can generate issues we haven’t thought of.


It takes time and effort to develop an ongoing system.  All plans require constant updates and tweaking to be successful.  I have never created a plan that proceeded unaltered.  The main goal is to keep moving down the road and stay out of the ditches.


Wrapping up, what can a dairy producer do today to improve cow happiness?


Commit as a dairy producer to improving the happiness of each of your animals.  Schedule time with your veterinarian and nutritionist to help create a plan for improving animal welfare.  Get buy-in from employees by explaining why this work is important and how both cows and people benefit.  Supply the tools and time needed to do the task well.

Evaluate every daily activity in light of the fact that cows want their life to be perfectly predictable and consistently calm.  A bored cow is a happy cow!

A dairy consultant based in California, Lee Gross is the founder FYP Consulting and is editor of this series of articles. Lee’s brought value to producers and industry partners in Extension roles in ag and dairy economics with the University of Minnesota and University of Wisconsin, and sales roles with Monsanto Dairy and Pfizer/Zoetis in the western US.  Working in the public and private sectors gives Lee a unique perspective in delivering value to clients.  He may be contacted at [email protected]

Dr. Dave Prig, an FYP consulting veterinarian in Battlefield, Mo., was raised on a dairy farm in Missouri and enjoys helping dairy producers improve their herd management skills. He has extensive experience using the PCDART platform to solve problems and find opportunities.  Dave’s diverse career includes contract work for Monsanto and Elanco, teaching agriculture classes, and managing the school dairy at College of the Ozarks. He enjoys traveling including trips abroad to train dairy professionals in The Republic of Georgia and Senegal Africa.  He may be reached at [email protected]

For more information, go to www.fypconsulting.com

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