March 18, 2008
Tift Co. --- Grocery store shoppers know first hand how much milk prices have increased. Some wonder how high they'll go.
A research scientist could help slow future price increases or maybe eliminate them, because he's found that a dairy cow comfort directly influences how much milk she produces.
"You got to keep them healthy," says Dr. John Bernard, a dairy scientist at the University of Georgia's College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
He's been around dairy cows for literally decades.
"Dairy cows are easy to get attached to," says John who started working with them as a boy growing up in Tennessee. "They have always been the animal of choice for me."
He chooses to treat dairy cows exceptionally well.
Dairy cows start having heat stress when the temperature reaches 75 degrees. That's the temperature when John turns on their fans that have water misters attached to keep the animals comfortable.
"With the fans and sprinklers, it takes a lot of the heat off," says John.
They eat about four to six hours and day, and the food they don't eat gets taken off soon after they eat all they want. If not, the leftover food could become a breeding ground for bacteria that could make them sick.
John doesn't want the animals to spend too much time standing around because it takes away from the cow's energy that could go to producing more milk.
"They spend 12 to 14 hours a day, maybe 16 hours lying around," says John.
Imagine huge coach potatoes weighing 1,300 to 1,600 pounds taking it easy, chewing their cuds and making milk.
If they stood up most of the time, more energy and nutrients would go to the animals' muscles instead milk production.
It would seem the more comfortable, the more milk, but he found what the cows rest on that matters.
Take a look at how a dairy cow lies down. She drops down on her front legs first. Pauses momentarily and then the back half appears to falls down. The cushioning really matters when a 1,600 pound cow freefalls inside her stall, even when she falls a few feet.
Bare concrete makes a hard bed. So, John tries sand, a waterbed-like device and a mattress with special foam rubber inside.
He found sand works quite well for their comfortable bedding. It cools the animals during the hot months and is easily cleaned. Since it doesn't have nutrients for bacteria to grow, sand is relatively sterile.
Some of the cows lounge on waterbeds that work well if a dairyman can't get sand for some reason. In the beginning, though, John found the wave action scared some of the cows, but a new type with two water chambers solved the problem.
Another type of bedding uses pieces of foam rubber sewed inside a heavy duty covering. Its benefit involves returning to the original shape after a cow lays on it for hour after hour, a distinct advantage.
"Anything we can do to minimize some of the stress is going to make her happier longer term," says John.
All day, everyday, comfort matters even when the cows stay home.