On the right track

Published 16 February 09

 

 On the right track

The arguments for and against cow tracks are well rehearsed but DairyCo Extension Officer Piers Badnell has brought together some tried and tested thinking from farmers on the subject in an updated section of the DairyCo grass+ programme to be published this spring.

"Put simply, good, well maintained cow tracks allow you to extend your grazing season, reduce pasture damage and poaching in gateways, enables quicker grass recovery, and gives the cows a comfortable, welfare friendly surface to move calmly and freely into and out of milking. Tracks need to be seen as a crucial part of your farm infrastructure.

"Plan a wish list of a network of tracks on your farm to give you the best access. You don't have to construct them all this year but it gives you an overall plan. Ideally you want to have the maximum access from the track for the least possible length of track, so try and site it to allow access from fields on both sides.

"As a rule of thumb a 5m width, of which 4m are surfaced as cows will never walk right against an electric fence, will enable a good flow for up to 200 cows. Each additional 100 cows in your herd will require an additional 1m on the width. Tracks can narrow down as they get further from the buildings and cow numbers thin out. But as trends show most herds expanding this could be false economy as you may well need the extra width in the future.

Whatever the walking surface, the stretch of track that leads to the yard or parlour needs to be concrete to avoid cows getting dirty, especially if they stand there for any length of time.

Positioning

"Look carefully at whether the proposed track is on a level or a slope, as the gradient may determine the type of surface you use in an effort to reduce the risk of slippage.

"Tracks should not be positioned in hollows or behind hedges where surfaces will require more maintenance. Avoid tracks in heavy shade if possible, in other words keep on the south facing side of a hedge if you can or the track won't get the best chance to dry out. As you'll know from parlour flow, avoid sharp corners, and put in good sweeps with plenty of width.

"Moisture is a real enemy of the cow track, so good drainage is crucial. There must be either a cross fall of 150mm on the narrow tracks (less than 4m) or a camber of 150mm on wider tracks. Keep the drainage water running across the track, it must not be allowed to run down the track as this will cause a river bed effect and quickly erode the track."

Tracks need to be designed so that water doesn't remain on the surface and if necessary drains should be laid so that water is not trapped on one side of the track in low spots. It is important to know where the water is draining too as there could be environmental issues associated with this.

"Your aim is to get the water off as quickly as possible with as little damage as possible.  If the track is to run within 1m of a waterway then specialist advice should be sought from the Environment Agency."

Materials

"Your choice of base and surface material must depend on use, the importance of initial costs verses ongoing costs and the availability of materials.

"When constructing your track it helps if there is either an on farm supply of shale or stone or some building material that is cheap base material. Talk to a local contractor about what sort of materials are available locally as transport can be one of the biggest costs. Check with your local authority regarding the use of local stone, selling topsoil (if you are going to remove it), using landfill or if planning permission is required.

"If the track is being used for cows only it needs to have a 150-200mm base of stone or shale. If you are planning to use it for tractors too it needs to be about twice as deep."

Other options to consider include solid surfaces such as concrete, which can be expensive, or softer surfaces such as wood peeling, sand, or sand and recycled tyre chippings. Cows love wood peelings or bark as a walking surface but they are expensive, unless materials are sourced on farm. There is also a high level of maintenance because the material does compost down. There are also a number of commercial materials such as Cow Carpet®, TexWay® and Cow Trax®.

"When looking at walking surfaces remember cows will walk better on softer surfaces, but consider the gradient of the track, weather conditions, and disposal if the material is no longer required.

"Small objects on the track can become a real lameness issue, so avoid lots of small stones and roll loose material with a heavy vibrating roller to consolidate. I've seen some producers sowing grass seed on finished tracks with soil content as the roots help to bind the materials together.

"Chalk is often used where available but can become slippery in wet conditions.  This can be rectified to some extent by a very light dusting of sand. One farmer I know in Dorset uses one good loader bucket of sand spread thinly over a 200m track, to reduce the slip, about every five to six weeks.

"Finally, with cow tracks one of the best approaches is to visit several farms with different types of tracks, see how they work in practice and talk to the producers."

Cow welfare and tracks

Whilst poorly designed or maintained cow tracks can cause lameness, a good track can actually help in the fight against lameness.

Cows move faster on good tracks, reducing the amount of time taken to travel to and from the pasture. They allow cattle access to pasture for a larger part of the year, reducing the time they spend indoors.

Cows with existing foot problems can walk more easily on a good surface. Good tracks can help improve udder cleanliness and reduce mastitis by reducing the time cows spend bunched together in muddy wet conditions. 

Just like any other area on the farm if tracks are poorly constructed or badly maintained problems can occur. Solar ulcer and white line damage can be caused by flints and sharp stones. Mechanical damage from poor cow tracks can lead to secondary infections and standing around on muddy wet tracks will increase the risk of infections such as digital dermatitis.