wheat field

Back to Cow Basics

Taking a Fresh Look at a Farm

By Grace Thomas, M.Agr.Sc. PAS

When everything is going well, it is easy to become complacent. Cow basics may appear efficient, for instance. However, it is best not to wait for something to go wrong before looking at farm management practices, as an error could be very costly. A step back is often required in order to gain a new perspective on how the farm is performing. If something has been out of kilter for a time, it is easy to become oblivious to the fact that it is suboptimal; a process of continuous improvement is essential.

Start looking at cow basics:

  • Do the cows look well?
  • Is rumen fill optimal?
  • Is there any inconsistency in body condition score?
  • Is cud-chewing optimal (60-70% of cows should be chewing their cud)?
basic cow activity chart

Source: AHDB Dairy Housing, a best practice guide

Observing the cows and their behavior can help determine the overall herd well-being. This is cow basics. Cows that are standing, perching, lame, with inconsistent manure are not performing to the best of their ability, finding the cause of these issues can help alleviate some of the problems. Are the cows doing what they should be doing when you enter the barn? Up to 85% of the herd should be lying down when you enter a barn, with the rest of the cows eating, drinking, and socializing. Table 1, lists the ideal, average, daily cow activity.

Another element of cow basics is cow comfort. Cow comfort is one of the main factors that affect lying and rumination time, when it is subpar it can lead to an increased proportion of cows choosing to stand. A standing cow will be more likely to become lame and produce less milk, as the cow has less time to ruminate. In addition, blood flow to the udder is increased when a cow is lying down, which has been associated with increased milk production. The main factors in a shed that can influence cow comfort are cubicle size, stocking density, ventilation, and flooring.


  • The cow should have space to lie down and rise up without colliding or rubbing against partitions.
  • Cubicles need to be wide and long enough to allow the lie to lie down comfortably.
  • Clean, well-bedded and scrapped out regularly.

A good indicator of insufficient cubicle comfort is observing a large number of cows with hock and knee injury, hair loss, abrasions, and swelling. Free-stall barns bedded with straw should have fresh straw added daily and have a complete clean out every three weeks; the bedding should be as clean and dry as possible.

Stocking Density

The stocking density of a shed will have a large impact on cow performance, there should be no competition for space to eat, drink or lie down. The minimum requirements for a cow are listed below.

  • 66cm (26 inches) of headspace for eating
  • 10cm (4 inches) of water through space
  • A cubicle space per cow
    • 4m² (13ft²) per cow in a slatted house
    • 5m² (16ft²) per cow in a loose house

Competition for lying space can mean that, once cows find a space to lie, they are less inclined to get up to eat and drink. When they do get up to eat, they eat larger meals which increases the risk of rumen upset (acidosis). Lack of lying and feed bunk space can lead to increased bullying within the herd. Heifers and subordinate cows crowded out of spaces and away from feed, get fewer opportunities to eat their correct diet and spend more time standing.


Poor shed ventilation is another factor that will lead to more standing cows, as the cows stand to get access to fresh air. Sheds with a strong ammonia smell and a high number of cobwebs tend to have insufficient ventilation.


Floor surfaces need to be able to provide underfoot traction and be even, especially areas of high traffic; conditions that allow a cow to slip can lead to injury. Yards and passageways should be scraped regularly and kept dry, if cows are standing in the muck, it can lead to softer hooves and increased disease risk.

Other management issues that should be observed when a farm is being reviewed are lameness, nutrition, calf /heifer management, and the transition cow program.


As mentioned above, cow comfort is a major factor in the cause of lameness within a herd; however, there are other areas that should be examined when looking for the causes of lameness. Are the cows lame due to an environmental, nutritional or management issue? There is no point in foot-bathing cows if they return to sheds that are not regularly cleaned out or if their nutrition is subpar, and the loss of body condition and/or low mineral content of the diet is the cause.


The nutrition of the cow is one of the main factors that drives yield and health. Again, it goes back to cow basics. In fact, it should be noted that the ration formulated on paper is not necessarily the ration that the cow receives. Any errors in feeding can be elevated by:

  • Analyzing the on-farm feeds – Having the on-farm feed analysis helps in the formulation of a balanced ration, that is matched to the cow’s requirement. This can help make the cow more efficient as it prevents any over or under supplementation.
  • Calibration of the mixer wagon and in and out-of-parlor feeders – This ensures the cow gets the correct quantity of feed.
  • Frequent sampling of the TMR – This can identify any issues with mixing or dispensing.
  • Regular push up at the feed bunk, to ensure it is never empty – This can help alleviate bullying and decreases the risk of rumen upset.

Transition Cows

Dry and pre-fresh cows should be managed equally or better than the milk-cows on a farm; as they are the cows that are the most important on the farm, the health of these cows will determine the future health and productivity of the herd. Cows should calve down with no metabolic issues; one way to ensure this is to have the correct nutrition program in place for the dry and transition cows.

Other Stock

Calves and heifers are the future herds on a farm, the protocol in place for these animals should be reviewed regularly. Are the calves given the best start they can, receiving the optimum level of colostrum and correct nutrition in their early life? Check that heifers are reaching the correct weight for their age, as any delay in breeding heifers will lead to more expenses. In addition, heifers that are joining the herd should be given a chance to acclimatize to the milking cow conditions to help alleviate stress when they are moved into the herd.

Agri-King area managers’ by analyzing on-farm feeds, formulating the balanced ration for the cows, calves, and heifers can help alleviate some of these on-farm issues. The transition cow program can help reduced metabolic problems at calving resulting in healthier cows. The trace element and enzymes products provided by Agri-King can help the cows deal with stressful situations and help them perform to the best of their abilities. AK

AHDB, Dairy Housing a best practice guide. www.dairy.ahdb.org.uk/dairy-housing-best-practice-guide