The UBC Dairy Education & Research Centre likes to look at the world at a little differently. Instead of doing what is standard practice in the dairy industry, their job is to take what exists now and see how it could be better.
“Facilities have been designed with people in mind,” explains research manager Nelson Dinn. “We’ve been asking the question ‘what does the animal think about the facilities’, and trying to find out if there’s better ways from the animal’s perspective.”
Naturally, cow comfort is a keen area of study for researchers here. They recently tackled the topic of cow comfort in calving and came up with a study to see what a the cow would prefer.
Asking the question, ‘what would the birthing cow prefer’, they set up an experimental maternity pen that gave cows the option between a hidden area to birth versus an open area. They conducted ‘preference’ experiments, which allow the cows to vote with their feet, explains the report.
In a natural environment, cows will typically leave the herd to give birth in a secluded area such as in tall grass. So they set up the pens at the centre to give cows a choice: an open area and one surrounded by a 1.5 metre high wall, both with a sawdust-bedded pack floor.
When put into this enclosure, cows calving at night when the lights in the barn were off and no staff were around, showed no preference between the areas. But cows calving in daytime chose time and time again to calve inside the hide. Thirteen of the 16 cows that gave birth during daylight hours birthed inside the hide.
After the first round of testing, researchers focused on a more practical arrangement for a typical dairy farm. They used a more conventional sized maternity pen and simply attached a piece of plywood to half of the front of the pen and to both sides. Of the 19 cows, 15 calved in the covered side of the pen.
So what does this mean for farmers? Dinn says while it might not be practical to have fully-separated spaces for birthing cows, farmers can look at helping their maternity area to be as sheltered as possible.
“Maybe it’s just a matter of putting a few pieces of plywood up,” says Dinn. “Simple modifications that can be applied to individual barns.”
Their next steps will be to study if allowing cows to have a preferred maternity pen will reduce calving problems such as dystocia or stillbirths.
To read the full research report, go to www.dairycentre.landfood.ubc.ca