Cow Signals - reading cow behaviour to identify problem areas in their surroundings or routine

Dairy farmers across the South West are looking at their cows with fresh eyes following a series of DairyCo events on Cow Signals.

The concept of reading cow behaviour to identify problem areas in their surroundings or routine is growing in popularity, and enabling dairy farmers to more closely meet their cows' needs, leading to increased production and lower costs.

Rachael Grigg, Cornwall extension officer for DairyCo, says the series of five events has been a great success. "One farmer said the invitation alone was enough to make him go and look at his cows. It's all about looking at things with fresh eyes, and people have gone away from the events planning to make changes to their systems as a result."

Karen Lancaster, a qualified vet and DairyCo extension officer for Cumbria and Lancashire, says that cows have six key needs - food, water, air, light, rest and space. By going into the cattle housing and assessing cow behaviour with a detached viewpoint, it is easy to identify areas that could be improved.

"Because farmers spend all day, every day, around their cows they often stop seeing the bigger picture - it is just about getting them to take a step back. By observing cow behaviour there are many things that farmers can do very easily and cheaply that can make a big difference."

Light and ventilation are often big problems on dairy farms, as older sheds tend to be quite dark and enclosed, says Miss Lancaster. Cows need 16-18 hours of light a day to maximise feed intakes and fertility. "Daylight is the cheapest form of light available, so taking out some Yorkshire boarding or putting extra skylights in is a low cost option which also increases ventilation."

Cows should ideally spend 14 hours a day lying down, so they have to be comfortable. "A quick test is to drop to your knees at the front of the cubicle and see how comfortable it is. Look out for hock lesions - they are a good indicator of cubicle comfort and the abrasiveness of the bedding."

At any one time some 85% of cows in cubicles should be lying down, she adds. "If they are not achieving that, look at the possible reasons why." If the cows are standing half in, half out of the cubicle, the neck rail could be too far back. If their hind end is hanging over the edge of the cubicle when lying down, the brisket locator is too far back. "Often it is only minor changes that need to be made. Shiny bits of metal are a good indicator that cows are banging against the rails."

Another common pitfall is smooth or dirty walking surfaces in collecting yards or housing, which can result in accidents, lameness, and queuing cattle. A useful test for this is called the Ballerina Test. "Stand on the spot and try to twist round on one foot - if you get more than half way round the surface is too slippery and could need grooving."

By monitoring their cows' behaviour, farmers often pick up on illnesses or problems more quickly, including lameness or poor rumen fill. It is also an opportunity to score the herd's mobility and condition, leading to further health and financial benefits. "All you have to do is go and look at what your cows are telling you, as every herd and unit is different."