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Time Management for Dairy Cows

Kathy Lee
Extension Dairy Educator
Northwest Lower Michigan

People talk a lot about time management. They want to prioritize their tasks and efficiently budget their time.

Dairy cows have their own time budgets. Behavioral routines of dairy cows have been observed to determine the amount of time spent on various activities. Rick Grant (2009) of the Miner Institute in New York reported a typical daily time budget for basic behavioral needs of lactating dairy cows in a freestall environment (Table 1).

The time standing in the alley includes socializing and moving between the feed bunk and stalls. Similar amounts of time for resting, feeding, and drinking have been reported by Cook (2008).

Total time spent ruminating (either lying or standing) is 7 to 10 hours. Cows are more apt to ruminate while lying down. Overstocking, prolonged time in headlocks, and uncomfortable resting surfaces can negatively affect rumination.

When accounting for the basic behavioral needs of a lactating dairy cow as listed above,
5 hr eating +
12-14 hr lying/resting +
2-3 hr standing/walking in alley +
0.5 hr drinking =
20.5 to 21.5 hr per day (total),

that leaves 2.5 to 3.5 hours per day for milking and other herd management activities.

Requirement for Rest
Dairy cows have a strong motivation to rest. Their natural behavior is to meet their requirement for resting, which may mean giving up some time for eating. Studies also have indicated that cows exhibit stress responses when they cannot meet their resting requirement.

Grant (2009) has proposed that each additional one hour of resting time is associated with 2 to 3.5 more pounds of milk/cow per day. Other research (Cook, 2008) did not find a similar relationship. However, that research did show more lameness in cows that had reduced resting time. Lameness generally has a negative impact on milk production.

To ensure that dairy cows can meet their requirement for rest, herd management activities that reduce resting time should be avoided. Several common challenges to a cow’s time budget that have been identified by Grant (2009) and Cook (2008) include:
• Overstocking
• Uncomfortable free stalls
• Excessive time outside of pen
• Prolonged time in lock-ups

Several studies have evaluated different stocking densities in groups of dairy cows. In general results indicated that at stocking densities of 120% or greater resting time is reduced by 12 to 27% and standing time increased by 15 to 25%.

Overstocking may have more significant effects on first-lactation cows that are grouped together with older cows (Grant, 2010). At 100% stocking density, when compared to older cows, first lactation cows had a 10% reduction in dry matter intake, 20% reduction in resting time, and less drinking and rumination time.

Maintaining optimal stocking density for close-up dry and fresh cows is especially critical. Decreases in dry matter intake can be an underlying factor in the incidence of fresh cow problems. Nordlund and coworkers (2006) recommend that stocking density in close-up dry and fresh cow groups be determined primarily on bunk space. They suggest 30 inches of bunk space per cow for these two groups. In addition, stocking density should be less than 80% of stalls in the pre-fresh group, especially if the group includes both heifers and cows
(Grant, 2009).

Uncomfortable Stalls
The amount of time that cows rest or spend lying down is significantly influenced by their willingness to use the stalls. The availability of a stall does not necessarily mean that it will be used.

Freestalls must be designed to allow cows to easily lie down and rise. The surface must be comfortable for the cow while lying. In addition, the cows need to be properly positioned in the stall (either standing or lying) to minimize soiling the bedding. The length and width of the stall as well as the position of the neck rail and divider loop depend on the size of the cows housed in the pen.

The type of surface cushion and traction influences the use of a stall, especially for lame cows (Cook, 2008). A firm, unyielding surface is more painful for cows with sore feet when rising or lying down. Consequently, they are apt to spend more time standing in the stall and will have fewer lying sessions per day. Sand is an optimal bedding, providing good traction and support to the weight bearing legs during rising and lying movements. Cows spend less time standing in sand-bedded stalls.

Recommendations for freestall dimensions and design have changed over time. MSU Extension Dairy Educators are available to help evaluate current freestall dimensions in dairy barns or provide information on updated freestall recommendations for barns being constructed or remodeled.
Excessive Time Outside Pen
The primary reason for cows to be outside of their pen is for milking. Considering the time budget in Table 1, about 2.5 to 3.5 hours are available per day for milking. This would include travel time to and from the parlor, time in the holding area and actual time in the parlor. For a herd milked 3 times a day, this would translate to 50 to 70 minutes per milking.

Number of cows in a pen, cows milked per hour, and distance to the parlor determine the amount of time that a cow is out of her pen for milking. When designing a new milking center, the optimum pen size should account for stocking density, as well as number of stalls in each pen. More time will be required to milk a pen of cows as the stocking density increases.

Prolonged Time in Lock-ups
Given the time spent on basic behavioral needs by dairy cows and time used for milking, little free time is left for cows to spend in other activities. Time spent in headlocks will compete with the other behavioral needs. While in headlocks at the feed bunk, cows can spend some time eating. However, after delivery of a fresh batch of feed, cows typically are ready to lie down and rest about 45 to 90 minutes later (Cook 2008).

Minimizing time in lock-ups is essential for fresh cows. These cows are most in need of a stress-free environment and minimum disruptions to their daily routine. It is recommended that this group of cows be limited to no more than 1 hour per day in headlocks (Grant 2010).

Behavioral needs of dairy cows have been observed to determine typical amounts of time budgeted to various activities. Dairy cows have a strong need for rest (lying down), requiring 12 to 14 hours per day. When time spent lying down decreases, lameness can increase and efficiency of rumination declines.

Disruptions to the cow’s time budget can be minimized by avoiding overstocking, providing comfortable freestalls, and preventing prolonged times for milking and in lock-ups. Striving to keep dairy cows within their desired time budget will ensure good cow welfare, health and performance.

Cook, N.B. 2008. Time budgets for dairy cows: how does cow comfort influence health, reproduction and productivity? 2008 Proceedings of Penn State Dairy Cattle Nutrition Workshop. p. 53-60.

Grant, R. 2009. Stocking density and time budgets. 2009 Proceedings of Western Dairy Management Conference. p. 7-17.

Grant, R. 2010. Optimizing the social environment of the cow. Proceedings from Pre-conference Symposium of 2010 Tri-State Dairy Nutrition Conference.

Nordlund, K., Cook, N., and Oetzel, G. 2006. Commingling dairy cows: pen moves, stocking density, and health. 39th Proceedings of American Association Bovine Practitioners. p. 36-42.

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