Stress Relief for Dairy Cows: Maintaining Comfort and Happiness

Dairy Cows are at their basic roots prey animals, meaning they will often be vigilant and wary of change. As they see humans as predators, they can even apply this watchful attitude to us, even if we are attentive and humane caregivers. In order to decrease this vigilance, and accompanying stress, it is important to invest in measures that assure their comfort. Not only does this help with their mental and physical well-being as they co-exist with us but it also helps their milk production. It is important to manage their environment and mental well-being to support not only good production but ethical dairy management.

good_pasture_cowsTwo of our Jersey cows grazing in the warm afternoon sunlight.

Access to Pasture

Joel Salatin, owner of the pasture-based Polyface Farm, explains that “herbivores in nature group, they mob up for predator protection, and they mow.” Herbivores do not consume grain supplements in the wild, or worse, chicken manure or the remains of dead cows worked into commercial feeds. Their natural inclination is to graze. Grazing supports both physical and mental health. By approximating a grazing atmosphere with good pasture and secure fencing, cows can live in an environment compatible with their herbivore nature. As grazing is not available all year, the next best option is to provide hay. Also being a grass, hay is a superior alternative to grain that allows cows to receive forage that supports their well-being.

Herbivores in nature group, they mob up for predator protection, and they mow. – Joel Salatin, Polyface Farms


Temperature Control

Heat stress leaves cows uncomfortable and controlling it furthers their production. Temperatures above 77 °F feel warm to cows and humidity over 80% adds to their discomfort. The older the cow, the more prone she will be to heat stress. Heat can also contribute to an infection known as mastitis. Good ventilation while milking and the availability of cover while pastured helps cows regulate their temperature. Milking barns are kept open and contain fans to keep maximum air flow, which keeps cows cool while they are working. If they are in pasture, keeping shelter available allows them to escape cold rain or wind or seek shade when they are too hot. Just like eating pasture, this encourages their natural behavior.

jersey_cow_snowNumber Forty-Eight just arriving in the barn during an evening winter snow storm. Notice how thick her winter coat is.

Cold weather also requires consideration. Like other large livestock, dairy cattle are most comfortable with temperatures ranging from 25° to 65° Fahrenheit. The bovine digestive processes and their size make them heat machines and the heavy winter coats cattle grow also retain heat very well. Very cold winters with temperatures consistently below 25° will affect their comfort and production.


Comfortable Housing

Cows may have to be stalled during severe weather and even then, their pastures and dry lots must be kept clean. Failing to keep these areas clean may leadto infections along with physical and mental stress. Cows lay down for 11 to 12 hours a day. Stalls need to be large enough to accommodate lying down as well as standing. Clean bedding materials need to be soft as the cow’s teats are in contact. This not only supports comfort while lying down but also prevents mastitis and other infections.

Ventilation is just as important in cold weather as in warm weather, but it must be maintained without creating drafts. Check for drafts near barn openings including doors and windows. Cows develop respiratory infections if they do not receive proper air flow so keeping inlets partially open will allow air flow without letting in the weather. Young calves or older cows who do not tolerate cold as well can wear blankets.

calf_jackets_blanketsOur heifer calves are housed inside the barn during the cold winter months. We put blankets on them when the temperatures outside are below freezing.

The other important item to note with cold weather is that cows will not eat if they do not have water to drink. Use tank heaters at water sources to prevent the water from freezing or break up the ice when drinking water freezes. Cows require more feed during the winter to keep up with their heat demands. Keeping fresh, unfrozen water available ensures that they will consume the hay they require.

jersey_cow_shelterOne of our cows heads toward a portable run-in shelter located out in the pasture, while other cows graze nearby.

Providing stress relief for cows is not only a matter of productivity but it is also supportive of good farming ethics and environmental quality. In its Guiding Principles, Polyface supports the notion that “Plants and animals should be provided a habitat that allows them to express their physiological distinctiveness.” For cows, supporting “physiological distinctiveness” involves respecting them as herd animals and herbivores. Giving them opportunities to graze but also keeping their environment clean when they must be stalled or working, keeps their captivity as stress-free as possible. We have found on our family milk cow farm that these measures produce both better milk and happier cows.

jersey_cows_shelteredYoung Jersey heifers gather inside the barn on a cool winter day. They have access to clean water, two types of hay and dry bedding to lie down in.


Farmer Guy June 20, 2014 Cow Health