Cows spend a lot of time lying down. To the untrained observer, it might come across as lazy, but this relaxed position means they are succeeding in their job roles.
Lying time for dairy cows is crucial to their health and productivity. Ideally, dairy cows should spend up to 14 hours a day lying down, though, within that time, they may only sleep for 30 minutes. Ensuring your cattle have the most comfortable bedding, optimal climate and a clean environment is essential to your milk production.
Since a dairy farm’s primary goal is milk production, it’s important to optimise their cattle’s lying times. Let’s take a look at various strategies to encourage healthy lying times for any farm style.
How Much Time Do Cows Spend Lying Down?
Ideally, cows should lie down at least 10 hours, and preferably 12+ hours, a day to maximise their milk productivity. Every extra hour a cow lies down means reduced costs and more revenue for the farm. In a high-performing herd, the difference between 12 hours lying and 4 hours of lying per day is 0.4 – 0.5 kgs milk solids per cow per day, even with exactly the same feed input. In fact, better lying time conditions is one of the 3 reasons cows do better at pasture in frosty or sunny conditions, in addition to higher pasture sugar content and increased intake.
Relating Lying Behavior With Climate, Body Condition Score, and Milk Production
Cows lying down signals to their body that they are comfortable and safe, promoting improved health, as well as increased milk production. A cow is more productive when lying down because blood flow to the udder increases by 30%, directly increasing milk productivity. Weather conditions tend to have less to do with a cow’s actual productivity, except when total humidity exceeds 70% because this negatively impacts the lying time.
The most productive dairy cows consistently spend more time lying down compared to their less productive counterparts. Milk production, lying time, and BCS are all positively correlated, so they all positively reinforce each other.
Do Cows Lie Down When It Rains?
As the old wives tale goes, “if cows are lying down. it’s about to rain.” On the contrary, if you see a cow lying down, it is likely a mere coincidence if it rains. If cows get too hot, milk production suffers, so lying down is one way cows regulate body heat to maximise milk production. The opposite also applies, so cows may lie down to preserve heat in cooler temperatures. Any correlation between a cow lying down and subsequent weather changes is more likely a reflection of changes in ambient temperature.
The best way to ensure cow comfort and optimal lying time in cows is to invest in a livestock shelter. This prevents having to provide your livestock extra feed, cutting down on milking time and increasing their comfort and lying times. SmartShelters livestock barns can work with you to customise a shelter to cover all of your needs. Ultimately increasing production levels and your bottom line.
At SmartShelters we have collected substantial relevant data from our customers who switched to our composting barns and other shelters. With this information we estimate a switch to indoor farming can expect a 10-20% increase in milk yield and lying time a year for 3 or 4 years. Hitting a milk target of 120% of live weight then holding it stable. For example production for a cow weighing 500kg starts at 440kgMS per cow before the switch to barns. Once indoor farming is implemented that lifts to an average of 600kgMS per cow within 2-3 seasons.
When feed input doesn’t change during the winter season, milk production inevitably declines because of weather effects on ground conditions, making it less inviting to lie down. Cows also do not like the wet ground, so it’s important to make adjustments to feed or ensure they have a comfortable, sheltered space to lie down. Standing cows increases maintenance costs and depresses feed conversion efficiency.
In particularly wet or heavy weather, cows may not lie down for more than 24 hours. Cows don’t mind cold temperatures as they naturally produce a lot of heat, so are normally quite happy at temperatures below 0°C. The factors that cause discomfort in cows are precipitation, humidity, and wind chill factor, especially if gut fill is poor. Gut fill is important for generating heat, with hay or straw being ideal, and extra feed should be provided strategically to keep cows full and well fed. Increasing molasses may also be helpful, but beware of any sudden increases in starch feeds, especially wheat, potatoes, or very finely rolled barley. Make sure plenty of calcium (lime flour) is in the feed mix.
Often the quickest way to re-establish energy balance or correct cows teetering on the edge of metabolic problems is simply to postpone at least one milking (or potentially more). The easiest way to increase energy intake is to increase protected fat in the diet, up to 500 grams per cow per day. This can be used strategically and does not need rumen adaptation time. For those in the middle of mating, this is essential.
How Does Cow Health Affect Lying Time?
Hypocalcaemia, or milk fever, is a major concern for cows. Cold, stormy conditions tend to increase calcium requirements and utilisation, so provisioning extra (limeflour) may be necessary, even for dry cows. Remember, all cattle can get hypocalcaemia at any time, so it’s not just associated with calving. Many cases tend to be missed and, the longer the time from the high-calcium demands of calving, the easier it is to miss signs of trouble since symptoms may progress more slowly. Cows with odd bloat, especially if they’re not eating, and slow movement or stumbling are classic alarm signs.
Calcium is needed for muscle function and, as a cow is stressed by their conditions or metabolic demands, blood and nutrients are shunted away from the digestive tract, e.g., the rumen wall. If feed is present, fermentation and gas production continue, but belching and advancing food through the digestive system do not. Animals become bloated and some can even be very aggressive, even if down, because of their relative discomfort. This sign is usually misinterpreted or missed. Often, hypocalcaemia will be complicated by a lack of adequate energy or glucose production by the liver, e.g., ketosis, or by excess magnesium input, which binds to calcium receptors in the body.
Even if you can’t provide dry ground for lying down, at least have a plan to improve shelter. If increased energy input cannot be achieved, consider how to decrease exertion and improve temperature regulation.
Lying behaviour and performances in dairy cattle – practical case
A case study at The Chiavassa farm clearly showed the advantages of a compost bedding system, both in efficient productivity and cow health. Lying behaviour is one of the highest priorities for dairy farms. Lack of sleeping and lying down have detrimental impacts on milk production and cow welfare. A proper shelter affects lying behaviour, overall health, and performance of dairy cattle significantly. Though any shelter system will have advantages and disadvantages, the successful implementation of a compost bedding system optimises dairy farm performance.
Importance of lying behaviour
Lying behaviour is a highly prioritised activity for cows, even preferred to food and social contact in situations where cows are restricted to a choice. Lying down, cows can divert more energy to producing saliva and ruminating compared to when they’re standing, which thereby also reduces ruminal acidosis. A lying cow has improved blood diffusion through the udder as compared with a standing animal (at least 3L/min). This improves udder function, health, and milk production. Cows lie down on comfortable bedding more frequently and for extended periods of time compared with hard ground or inhospitable conditions. With a composting barn, there is no restriction to lying time at all.
Standing in stalls
Milkers are better able to cope than cows in late pregnancy. A milker can correct imbalances associated with prolonged standing by reducing their milk output. The challenge lies in the fact that an unborn calf continues to have metabolic growth needs, thus consuming energy, protein, and minerals. The pregnant cow also has to carry extra weight, so standing for long hours significantly increases her energy needs. Often, these are also the most difficult cows to access in bad weather. If they are standing on hard ground or concrete, you may have issues with lameness down the road. This is also against general animal welfare standards.
When planning free standing bedding, it is imperative to consider several critical factors. The surface must be sturdy and accessible. A comfortable and supportive surface is preferred over hard or cold flooring. The expense of the surface will have implications relative to durability, as well as a cow’s potential for injuries and comfort level. This is where cows will spend a majority of their time, so cow pens must be designed for manageable systems and provide a soft sleeping surface, while also supporting standing height for feeding.
Lying down – duration and frequency
If cows can not lie down at will, this disturbs their normal behaviour, lactation, and reproductive cycle. If this happens, the cows consume less and produce less, while burning more energy. Cattle spend more than a fifth of their lives lying down but also rise about 16 times a day. Ideally, cows should be able to lie down for as long and as frequently as they want to. Indoor farming has proven to increase lying time in cows due to increased cow comfort. Our composting barns not only provide soft bedding made from organic materials, these materials are capable of decomposing over time for the production of organic fertiliser and decrease nitrogen leaching by 50%. Just be sure to carefully monitor their health and behaviour to avoid mistaking a down cow for a cow just lying down.