Comfortable stalls positively impact your cows but what happens when they step out for a stroll to the feed bunk?
Considerable research and observation have been invested in better stall designs for free-stall barns. Well-documented evidence shows stalls that promote greater resting time positively impact production, health and growth.
However, resting time spent lying in a stall is only part of a cow's day-normally 10 to 12 hours. Providing sure, comfortable flooring in the rest of the barn will encourage her to venture from the stall.
At present, most cows housed in free-stall barns step onto concrete floors when they leave their stalls. Several studies have associated this surface with increased incidence of lameness and hoof problems. Moreover, it's been demonstrated that concrete flooring can impair cow locomotion, expression of estrus and grooming. As a result, flooring surfaces outside stalls are attracting more research attention.
The most common approach to optimizing concrete floor comfort has been to add grooves when the concrete is still wet or after curing. Concrete floors with finishes that lack sufficient surface texture increase the risk of slipping and injuries. If the concrete surface is too rough, however, cleaning becomes an issue and feet and leg problems may arise as well.
Another option for optimizing comfort in alleys is adding a floor covering to increase the cow's traction. The surface also compresses, making it softer on the cow's feet.
A recent research project evaluated the effect of roughness and compressibility of flooring on cow locomotion. The researchers constructed two experimental L-shaped walkways to simulate various challenges that cows would face when walking in a barn and compared various flooring options with ungrooved concrete.
These options included commercially available products such as PastureMats and Animat, a polypropylene-polyester mix felt and a thin, high-friction, slip-resistant material used for conveyor belts. The last material has characteristics similar to Animat but is less compressible at high pressure due to reduced thickness.
The results clearly indicated benefits for cow locomotion of a commercially available soft rubber mat compared with ungrooved concrete. Rubber flooring's advantages were most apparent in the walkways' more challenging sections such as right angle turns. It is believed that a floor covering's thickness as well as its non-slip characteristic needs to be evaluated. An animal's hooves sink further into a thicker surface, thus increasing overall traction.
During the experiment, slurry was spread on top of the various surfaces. In all cases, it increased the incidence of slips, even when "non-slip" flooring was in place. This shows the importance of keeping walking areas as clean and dry as possible. It appears to be the most efficient way to prevent slips and related injuries.
Another area of the barn examined was the feed bunk, where cows will spend four to six hours a day. Researchers assessed the effects of the flooring surface in front of the feed bunk on cow behaviour.
The study's first part examined cow preference for softer flooring, comparing sawdust pads and concrete. Various measures were recorded, such as feed intake, standing behaviour and time spent in various parts of the barn. In the experiment's second part, Animat rubber flooring was compared with concrete. Similar observations were recorded.
Results show cows prefer to stand on softer flooring surfaces than concrete when eating. The presence of such surfaces near feed bunks may increase time spent in this area. Although a feed intake improvement of 800 grams per day was observed in the experiment's first part-concrete versus sawdust bed-this improvement was not observed in concrete-Animat comparison.
Cows' preference for softer surfaces corresponded with longer times spent at or near the feed bunk as well as total eating times in both parts of the study. Unfortunately, eating time cannot be directly related to feed intake. More research needs to be done to clarify this point.
Time spent by cows in stalls varied considerably between the two parts of this study. In the first part, cows averaged 750 minutes per day in the stalls. In part two, the duration was only 547 minutes per day. Furthermore, in part two, some cows spent substantial time lying in the feeding area while almost none of this behaviour was observed in part one.
The researchers suspect dissimilar comfort levels in the stalls between experiments may explain these differences. This highlights the importance of evaluating the comfort of the whole facility rather than concentrating on just a single component.
Effects of Roughness and Compressibility of Flooring on Cow Locomotion J. Rushen and A. M. de Passille. J. Dairy Sci. 2006;89 2965-2972
Flooring in Front of the Feed Bunk Affects Feeding Behavior and Use of Freestalls by Dairy Cows. C. B. Tucker, D. M. Weary, A. M. de Passille, B. Campbell, and J.Rushen. J. Dairy Sci. 2006;89 2065-2071
Points to ponder:
This article first appeared in the Ruminations column of The Milk Producer Magazine, October, 2006.
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