Tekst: Jacques Bernard, Foto: Christine Massfelder
Consumers are consistently demanding better animal welfare. For farmers, this means bridging the gap between fulfilling these demands and the profitability of their operations. Within this, it is no secret that through improved laying behaviour both profitability and animal welfare are increased. But how do we definitively improve laying behaviour? And what is the perfect solution? To find the answers, we met for a conversation with three specialists on the topic.
The cow is an honest beast. The better she is cared for, the more she normally pays back. This principle of reciprocity is understood by most farms today. The more they invest in the welfare of their animals, the healthier and more profitable they will be. Afterall, at the end of the day, it is one parameter that is pivotal for profitability and that is daily lifetime production. This is directly tied to the laying behaviour of a cow, as the more time a cow spends laying down every day, the higher her milk production is. The rule of thumb for this is about 1.5 to 2.0 kg more milk yield for every hour more that a cow lays down every day. Whoever can increase the average laying time of their cows from eleven to thirteen hours per day can count on a production increase of 3.0 to 4.0 kg per cow per day. And there are further benefits, as in addition to higher production, the burden on the feet and joints is relieved, which positively affects longevity.
As such, the step to increase laying comfort has a significantly higher return on investment than is most often assumed. On this point, all our experts agree and beyond that they all share the same general ideas and strive for similar goals. The experts we refer to are Jehannes Bottema, the CEO of the Dutch company Spinder, Jens Christian Hertel, the CEO of the Danish company Cow-Welfare, and Robert Nugteren, the Engineering Manager of the Canadian company Promat Inc. While the three companies are in competition when it comes to their products, there are many parallels in their philosophies. They all have high expectations of their products and want them to be long-lasting and sustainable, whereby they find themselves among the more expensive providers in their sector. Additionally, they all stock plenty of inventory so that every product has a very short delivery time, even for big projects. It is also important to them that the production and the technical knowhow are at one location in order to facilitate communication during the development and optimization of their products. On first glance this may all seem rather unspectacular, but it is surely a factor, in addition to competent consultation, that not only increases the price of the products, but moreover is highly valued by customers. As you may already have guess, with so many similarities, the challenges for the companies are also identical. Nugteren comments: ‘We provide products for cows and their welfare, but we have to sell them to people.
Anyone who takes a chair and sits down in the barn will quickly observe that cows are telling a story. Not only a story about the barn but also a story about the farmer
And oftentimes, the difference is in the details.’ One example for his statement is that many clients when purchasing cow mats do the popular test of falling to their knees and thereby cannot decide between a high quality or an average mat simply because they are so much lighter than the average cow
Naturally, we want to know what the perfect solution is, as this is of interest not only to us, but also to those that happen to be investing in this area at the moment. ‘The question that we must ask ourselves is for when the perfect solution needs to be in place,’ begins Hertel. ‘For the cow, a generous laying area with a soft subsurface and good grip is the by far the best. That is why here in Denmark a lot of barns are built with deep sand-bedded stalls, though they have the downside of requiring more labour and create more wear and tear on equipment.’ Bottema adds: ‘We always need to decide what the best solution is for individual farms. As part of this we need to establish which bedding materials are available for reasonable prices, and who does the work on a daily basis and how the work is done. This could mean that while a waterbed is the second best option for laying comfort, it is the right option for the farmer because of the ease of labour.’ For every one of the three experts, the same creed is true: ‘The perfect solution does not exist.’ At the end of the day, a suitable solution needs to be found for every client to create the best possible animal comfort and thereby increase laying time. It must always be recognized that every small improvement to the environment can have an impact overall. This is particularly true for renovations.
In order to achieve longer laying times, there are two possible paths to pursue. One is mechanics and equipment and the other is overall management on the farm. ‘Before we try to change something, we need to take time to observe the cows. Anyone who takes a chair and sits down in the barn will quickly observe that cows are telling a story. Not only a story about the barn but also a story about the farmer and depending on what the story says we can develop a plan,’ explains Nugteren about his approach. When talking about mechanics, this refers to generally known points of observation. For example, how long do the cows stand in the stall before they lay down or how do behave when getting up. Even the amount of dirt in the rear part of the stall gives some clue as to whether the cows lay down straight or whether the neck rail is properly fitted. The stall should stay clean in order to maintain hygiene and minimize labour. ‘It is not good enough to only focus on the mechanics to achieve increased laying time, you have to identify the weakest link in the chain. This could be excessive milking time or overcrowding. It needs to be understood that the maximum is not always the optimum, as with every extra cow in the barn, the laying time of the whole herd decreases,’ says Bottema, who specifies that outside of feeding and milking times about 80% of the herd should be laying in order to achieve optimal production
As previously described, the three companies off high quality products that are geared towards laying behaviour, such as stall dividers or mats. Now we want to take a quick look at specific products which have their differences in the details. Cow-Welfare, for example, specializes in flexible stanchions. ‘The special thing is that the dividers are open at the back so that the cow can capitalize on the freedom to move her head and take the last step out of the box sideways, which means that less bedding is removed from the stall,’ explains Hertel. For mats, Hertel recommends a latex mattress with a slope of 3.6% and which is softer in the knee area with adequation grip under the rear feet. A similar concept is presented with the mattress from Promat Inc., which has two different zones. The soft knee area is made up of a special foam. Nugteren compares a good stall to a box spring bed where comfort is a leading feature. Furthermore, Promat Inc. has various solutions for the specific areas of calving and box stalls for show cows.
Spinder has a lot of experience when it comes to waterbeds and points to a base clientele of over 1500 farms which have installed them. Additionally, the have a wide range of stall dividers, including a hybrid model called the Fitbox. The Fitbox is a combination of massive fibreglass poles (3cm) and a connection at the rear with steel clamps. Also of interest are the imposing neck rails whose function whose to ensure cows lay down straighter.