Improving Cow Comfort In And Around The Milking Parlour

Dr. Laura Boyle – Teagasc animal welfare scientist

Increasing herd sizes, as well as time and labour constraints, mean that the concrete flooring found in the collecting yards and milking parlour may be having a much greater impact on lameness in dairy cows than before. Cows have to stand for longer waiting to be milked and at the same time, are under greater pressure to move quickly through the system. Improving cow comfort in this area will not only help to reduce lameness but will also improve cow flow and could thereby reduce milking times.

But why worry about lameness? Lameness is the second most important production disease and a major reason for the culling of dairy cows after mastitis. The pain and suffering associated with lameness make it the major welfare problem of dairy cows. Research from Northern Ireland estimates that the average prevalence of lameness in dairy herds is 33%. This means that at any one time one-third of the cows in a herd are lame.

Further south, where cows spend more time at pasture this figure is slightly lower at between 20% and 25%, but this is still too high. Scientists working for The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) compiled an influential set of reports on dairy cow welfare in 2009. In the EFSA report on lameness they concluded that 10% is an accepted prevalence, irrespective of the way in which milk is produced i.e. grass based, zero grazed etc. One of the main constraints on achieving this level is that farmers typically underestimate the scale of the problem as well as its impact on cow welfare and farm finances (could be as high as €200/ lameness case if productivity losses are taken into account).

In most cases, lameness can be avoided simply by paying better attention to the environment and most importantly, to conditions underfoot. In Irish pasture-based systems, roadways and concrete flooring are major risk factors for lameness. In spite of minimal periods of housing in several parts of the country, cows still spend a considerable amount of time every day standing and manoeuvring on concrete.

The 2001 Teagasc labour study showed that milking (cluster on/off) takes between 1.5 and 2.5 hrs. It is unlikely that this has changed much as larger herds have been matched with efficiencies in the milking process. This means that the last cows to enter the parlour (these are always the same animals!) could be standing on concrete for up to 5 hours/day. The last cows are often the ones that are lame which compounds the problem.

The Teagasc labour study also showed that 40% of cows were held at the parlour, often on concrete, after being milked. So being early in the process is no guarantee of an early release from concrete! The fragmentation of larger farms will contribute to this problem with roads to cross etc. Combine all of this with slips and falls as cows are hurried into position and unnatural strains being placed on the hoof as cows are forced to make 90o turns at the parlour exit and it becomes easy to see why there is a role for rubber flooring in and around the milking parlour.

Cows have more confidence when they feel sure-footed while walking. Rubber flooring offers  a superior grip versus concrete and is much kinder to the claws as the rough edges of the concrete pose a risk to claw health. Furthermore, unlike rubber, concrete doesn’t absorb any of the shock when cows fall on it meaning that all of the shock is absorbed by the cow. The cushioning advantage of rubber offers particular benefits to lame cows as pressure on the sole is reduced. This may even speed up the healing process. As cows are more relaxed when comfortable during standing, rubber flooring in the parlour may even make cows easier to milk. Strategic positioning of rubber can also encourage cows to move from the collecting yard into the parlour thereby further speeding up the milking process.

The prevalence of lameness on farms ranges from 0% to 80%, indicating that some farmers are much better at preventing and managing the problem than others. The strategic use of rubber flooring in and around the parlour, at the feed face and in other handling areas such as the crush can help farmers reap the financial rewards associated with reducing the prevalence of lameness in the dairy herd.