Amber’s Top Ten Tips: Understanding Dairy Cattle Welfare from an International Perspective

What is animal welfare? This is a question I commonly receive from students, farmers, fellow scientists, and the general public. It is this question that sparked much discussion at the 7th International Conference on the Assessment of Animal Welfare at Farm and Group Level earlier this month in Ede, Netherlands. As an attendee and presenter at this conference, I chose to participate in a workshop focused on defining animal welfare. My intent was to finally have a definition of animal welfare that was mutually-agreed-upon by an international group of scientists, government officials, and non-governmental organizations. However, the outcome of the workshop was not what I expected. The take-home message was that everyone views animal welfare differently; therefore, we were not able to agree on a single definition of animal welfare. Although frustrating, it was important for me to hear this message and push myself to better understand the diverse perspectives people bring to the table when discussing animal welfare.

I would like to share these insights with you. Conference attendees that focused on dairy cattle welfare were asked to create a list of the top three current welfare concerns within the dairy industry and then create a list of the top three potential solutions to these concerns. If you were asked this question, how would you answer? The group identified the top three dairy cattle welfare concerns as: 1) cow-calf separation; 2) cow transition period; and 3) transportation. Do you agree? Here are the group’s top suggestions on how to potentially solve these concerns:

  1. Cow-calf separation. Part-time nursing from the cow

    This solution would allow calves to nurse from the cow only during specific times of the day. For example, calves could be separated from the cows during the day and then allowed to nurse at night. Another method would be to house the calves and cows together, but offer a separate area that is only accessible to calves. Could this work? Some European countries allow calves to nurse from cows during the first couple months of life. Average daily gains for these calves are impressive at 1.98 – 3.09 lbs/day.

  2. Cow-calf separation. Educational system for farmers to exchange experiences

    By offering more opportunities for farmers to build educational networks, would ideas be shared and improved? Educational systems like this have been successful in other industries and areas of the world (cotton in Tanzania and rice in Uganda). Sheep and beef farmers in New Zealand viewed the information exchange between farmers as vital to their success.

  3. Cow-calf separation. Timing of cow-calf separation

    Should calves be separated from their dams earlier or later? A survey revealed that 55.1% of US respondents and 68.7% of German respondents favored later separation (days or weeks after birth) over early separation (within first few hours of birth). How to then wean and separate the calves without causing additional distress is still a concern.

  4. Transition period. Social stability during the transition period

    Providing adaptable housing systems for transition cows could decrease the number of times transition cows need to be regrouped. As seen on Canadian farms, every time a regrouping occurs, cow feeding time decreases (15 minutes less on the day of regrouping), lying time decreases (3 hours less the day after regrouping), and 2.5 times more displacements occur at the feedbunk.

  5. Transition period. Tools for the early detection of disease

    The ability to detect or predict the onset of disease in transition cows would help farmers provide treatments earlier. Researchers in Denmark used the GEA® CowView Real-Time-Location-System to monitor cow behavioral patterns and found that a change in behavior (15% or higher) is an indicator of a change in a cow’s health status. Some heat detection technologies already provide behavior data that can be used to identify changes in cow health.

  6. Transition period. Cow management

    Would managing cows to maintain a consistent body condition score throughout the transition period decrease the incidences of disease during this period? Could a shorter dry period or no dry period be considered? A study conducted in the Netherlands noticed that cows provided with no dry period produced about 8 lbs/day less than cows provided with a short dry period (30 days); however, the cows with no dry period had 87% less severe negative energy balance four weeks after calving.

  7. Transportation. Improve truck design and driver training

    The transportation of calves, in particular, was discussed as a concern. In Australia, calves transported in trucks with straw bedding had 10% lower creatine kinase activity (an indicator or physical stress and/or muscle damage) than calves transported with solid steel or steel mesh flooring. Other ideas mentioned were: 1) providing additional handling training for truck drivers; 2) installing equipment to control the climate inside the truck; and 3) installing monitoring systems inside the trucks.

  8. Transportation. Mobile slaughterhouse

    This suggestion is straightforward. Designing a mobile slaughterhouse would eliminate the need to transport cattle to the slaughterhouse, thus eliminating some of the welfare concerns surrounding cattle transportation. It should be noted, though, that this concept could be very difficult to control from a biosecurity standpoint.

  9. Transportation. Determination of a cow’s fitness for transportation

    How would you measure a cow’s fitness for transportation? This is exactly the question Irish veterinarians face when they must decide whether a cow qualifies for a casualty slaughter. Currently, little scientific information is available to help farmers and veterinarians make these very difficult decisions, so we must rely on our best judgment. Perhaps this is an area that requires more attention from scientists?

  10. Anthropomorphism

    Although not a solution to welfare concerns, we, as an industry, need to be selective in the words we choose to describe animals. Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human-specific characteristics to nonhuman animals, and occurs commonly in the dairy industry. Participants at the animal welfare workshop were given a situation, had to determine whether it was an animal welfare issue, and provide a reason for the decision. The situation: a cow can’t get pregnant. Is this an animal welfare issue? Why? This may seem like a simple example for you, but the group was divided in half. Some members of the half that said it was an animal welfare issue used the rationale that if a human female found out that she could not get pregnant, then she would be distressed and her welfare would be compromised. This is anthropomorphism. No evidence exists to support the claim that this particular situation is an animal welfare concern. This situation could become an animal welfare concern if, for example, it was known that the cow was experiencing pain.

What are your thoughts on the potential solutions discussed above? Do you agree or disagree with the top three dairy cattle welfare concerns identified by the group? I would enjoy hearing your opinion on these topics. Hope to hear from you soon!

Gathering Excess Phosphorus for Recycle

Drone flies over spreader applying struvite to a field.

The decreasing supply of domestic phosphate fertilizers virtually guarantees that the disruptive price spikes that have embattled agricultural operations over the past decade will become even more frequent. The cost of phosphorus has climbed nearly back to its historic high of 2008, and its price has outpaced that of farm commodity prices nearly two to one in recent years.

At current rates of extraction, the US will completely deplete its phosphate reserves within 30 years, while worldwide demand continues to increase. The shrinking availability of this essential nutrient presents an unprecedented challenge for agricultural producers, and within only a couple of decades the impacts on farm output, food prices, and global security will likely be severe. Competitive advantages will accrue to growers who adopt systems for more efficiently using and recycling phosphorus, reducing their vulnerability to volatile fertilizer markets.

Washington State University is leading the way toward development and adoption of a recycled, locally available phosphate fertilizer that promises Washington hay growers a more economical, reliable nutrient source in future years. Struvite, or magnesium mono-ammonium phosphate, is produced from dairy manure and wastewater treatment facilities in the form of a precipitated crystal. It is nutrient-dense (6-29-0), odorless, lightweight, and totally unlike the biosolids more typically exported from these sources. Extracted from clarified liquid in mineral form, struvite contains no cellulosic material and absorbs no water. Currently its most common use is on commercial golf courses, testifying to its ease of use and minimal environmental foot print.

Struvite dissolves slowly in the soil, releasing nutrients at almost exactly the rate plants need, which reduces the volume of phosphorus that gets lost to erosion and leaching. Agronomists predict struvite may significantly reduce the rate at which farmers apply phosphate to fields, a further environmental and economic benefit of this recycled nutrient. And struvite’s salt index and heavy metal content are significantly lower than all other commercial NPK fertilizers.

The WSU Mobile Nutrient Recovery Project is conducting onsite demonstrations of a technology that extracts phosphorus at Washington dairy operations and produces struvite, which can then be economically shipped to hayfields within the area. Essentially, the process recovers phosphorus where it is in excess, creating threats to local water systems, and makes it available where it is needed in the wider agricultural region.

WSU is supporting this initiative with field plot studies and greenhouse trials that provide growers an ever-growing body of data on how struvite performs in different soil types and with various crops. . Struvite fertilizer applications have been applied to two commercial alfalfa operations in Moses Lake and Kittitas to date. WSU Livestock Nutrient Management Program is currently working with commercial growers to understand better how it is best applied and how to maximize the advantage of its slow-release characteristic.

For more information, or to participate in our ongoing studies, contact Liz Whitefield (, 253-445-4562) or visit

Cow Comfort: How Do Your Cows Spend Their Time?

This article is a synopsis of an excellent research summary paper called “Economic Benefits of Improved Cow Comfort” by Dr. Rick Grant of the Miner Agricultural Research Institute. The entire paper (pdf) is available at

We all realize that for cows to be able to produce milk up to their genetic potential, we need to maximize their dry matter intake (DMI). But did you know we also have to do all we can to help them maximize the time they spend lying down? Lying (resting) time is strongly correlated with milk production, herd longevity, feet/leg health, and DMI. Why? It’s all about rumination.

Resting Associated with Rumen Health

Rumination decreases food particle size and increases the surface area exposed to digestive enzymes; this increases the rate and efficiency of food digestion and transit time. The faster food moves out of the rumen, the sooner there is room for more food to come in. More food coming in more quickly means more milk. Rumination also causes self-buffering of rumen pH through natural bicarbonate in cows’ saliva; more chewing means more saliva and more buffering. Any factor that reduces rumination–lack of effective fiber, stressful environment, lack of resting time, overcrowding, too much time in holding area, too much walking distance, illness, estrus, etc.–can result in rumen acidosis, reduced milk production, reduced milk components, more lameness, and more culling.

Cows Have Daily Time Budgets

Dairy cattle have a daily time budget correlated with optimal health and production (Figure 1). Keeping “time outside the pen” to a minimum is critical because cows will forfeit feeding time to make up for lost resting time. Research has documented that for every three minutes of resting time lost, cows will sacrifice one minute of feeding time. Lack of adequate resting time can cause a five pound drop in milk production the following day. Correspondingly, one additional hour of resting is correlated with two to four more pounds of milk. This concern for adequate resting time is part of a new focus in dairy management called Cow Comfort Economics.

Figure 1. Typical Cow Time Budget, hours/day
(1) Also referred to as “time outside the pen,” which includes anything taking time away from eating, drinking, or resting (milking, walking to milking, time in holding areas, hooftrimming, headlocks for vet checks or breeding, etc.)
Eating 5
Resting/lying down 12 to 14
Walking, grooming, standing, interacting 3 to 2
Drinking 0.5
Total required 20.5 to 21.5
Time available for milking (1) 3.5 to 2.5

“…the cow only has, on average, 2.5 to 3.5 hours per day to spend outside the pen and away from the feed, water and stalls. If we force the cow to spend more than about 3.5 hours per day outside the pen, then she will need to give up something&emdash;typically feeding and/or resting. Every farmer should know how long their cows spend outside the pen.”

— Dr. Rick Grant, “Economic Benefits of Improved Cow Comfort,” 2015, p. 2.

Stall Comfort and Feed Availability Effects

It seems logical that comfortable cows would be more productive, and studies have documented this effect. Bedding factors (type, amount, moisture, maintenance), stall design (width, length, location of neck and brisket rails, etc.), and stocking density all affect resting time. Researchers documented an 11.6 pounds of milk advantage of sand over other bedding types in one study. Cows found the sand stalls more comfortable, rested more, and produced more milk. Costs of renovating stalls to implement recommendations for larger and softer stalls were recouped in an average of 1.9 years in one cow comfort economic study; benefits came from higher milk production, lower SCC, reduced lameness, and less culling.

Feed availability can be considered another aspect of cow comfort. Ensuring feed is always available to cows can result in four to eight more pounds of milk per day. Feeding more than once a day results in greater feed availability, but excessing feeding frequency (>three times in 24 hrs) ironically reduces cow resting time and DMI. Targets for maximizing feed intake include:

  • Empty bunk <3 hours a day (goal: 0 hours empty)
  • 3% feed refusal
  • Understocked bunk capacity (allow 2’ per cow)
  • Feed TMR 2x/day with feed push up every 30 min. for 2 hours after feeding

Stocking Density, Parity, and Dominance Issues

Overstocking is a bad idea for so many reasons, not the least of which is cow comfort (Figure 2). Competition for feed causes cows to eat fewer meals but feed more quickly. In one study, cows in overstocked facilities were observed to eat 25% faster and rumination was reduced by an hour a day; milk fat was reduced, rumen health was compromised, and feed efficiency was reduced.

Figure 2. Effects of Overstocking
Increased Decreased
  • Intercow aggression
  • SCCs
  • Health issues
  • Lameness
  • Feeding rate (slug feeding)
  • Alley standing time
  • Milk production
  • Milk fat
  • Reproductive performance
  • Resting
  • Rumination
  • Feed intake

Lower status animals (first calf heifers, smaller individuals, lame cows) will often choose to forego eating to avoid confrontations with more dominant individuals. When they do have bunk access, they often engage in slug feeding, which can result in chronic sub-acute ruminal acidosis and reduced rumination. Lower milk production, reduced milk fat, and increased lameness risk follow once again. Anything interfering with DMI in first-calf heifers is a concern because these animals still have nutritional growth requirements in addition to maintenance and lactation requirements.

Higher status cows often dominate the most comfortable stalls, too, so in addition to reduced access to feed, lower status animals may experience reduced resting time and therefore reduced rumination. If first calf heifers and other lower status animals can be separated from higher status animals, increased feeding time, meals per day, feed intake, lying time, and milk production should result.

Heat Stress Effects on Cow Comfort and Rumination

Genetic selection for higher-producing dairy cattle has resulted in animals that perceive heat stress at a temperature-humidity index of just 68°F. Management efforts to pro-actively address heat stress can prevent reduction of up to ten pounds of milk per day. Hot cows spend more time standing and less time lying down and resting, too; this is associated with decreased rumination, DMI and production and increased slug feeding and lameness. Actions to help keep cows cool include shade, fans, providing cooled water, periodic large water drops over shoulders in the presence of fans, and feeding 60% of the ration in the evening. Do not overlook addressing dry cow comfort related to heat—it is associated with a better transition period.


Flow chart listing factors impacting cow comfort.
Figure 3. Flow chart on addressing cow comfort.

Figure 3 depicts the ultimate goals and outcomes of addressing cow comfort: increased cow longevity, increased milk quality and quantity, increased revenue, decreased expenses, and greater profitability, mediated through increased resting and rumination time.