Dear Aggie: I’ve heard the saying “happy cows make more milk”, but what actually makes a cow happy?
Cows are creatures of habit and they like routine. Given this, dairy farmers try to keep consistent routines and schedules on farm, from when fresh feed is delivered to when milking occurs.
Just like us, some of the most important things to cows are tasty feed, a nice place to sleep and relax, and a chance to socialize with friends. A dairy cow producing a large amount of milk will eat about a garbage can full of feed each day.
On most dairies, feed is offered as a “TMR”, or “total mixed ration”, which means all the ingredients are mixed and blended to make a casserole of important nutrients. This ensures each bite is similar and contains the right amount of protein, energy, and other nutrients. Since they eat so much, and because milk is about 87% water, dairy cows have to drink a lot of water each day (about a bathtub full, or 30 to 50 gallons/day).
When they aren’t eating and drinking, cows spend almost half of the day lying down, so having a nice, soft, clean place to lay down helps keep cows happy and healthy. A lot of dairy farms have “freestall” beds, which is where a pen of cows has access to a rows of individual stalls where the cows can choose to lay down. Being herd animals, social interactions are also important to cows. Calves housed in pairs or groups will spend time playing and lying together, and adult cows are regularly seen grooming each other. Some farms will comment that they always see the same two cows lying beside each other, or entering the milking parlor together.
Keeping cows the right temperature also helps keep them happy. Dairy cows prefer temperatures around 40°F, so in the summer, farms utilize shade, barns, fans, and misters to help keep cows cool and comfortable. Although cows like their simple routines, they also do like some enrichment. For young calves, this could be an increase in play behavior after a new load of sawdust bedding is placed in the pen, or for cows, it can be the use of brushes. Some farms have large rotating brushes (think a big power brush) mounted in the pens for the cows to use. They love them and will actually line or push other cows out of the way to use them. It helps get to that hard to reach itch, and it can keep their coats clean and brush out excess hair.
It is true that happy cows make more milk, and dairy farmers work hard each day to ensure their cows are comfortable, happy, and healthy!
Question answered by: Lindsay Ferlito, Regional Dairy Specialist, Cornell Cooperative Extension North Country Regional Ag Team.