Made your bed? Now lie in it!

The dairy industry has seen a near complete shift from loose houses to cubicles for housing milking cows, and often for good reasons. Cubicles present a simple opportunity to increase the capacity of a cubicle house in a similar way to a dorm room in a Youth Hostel. When looking at how cows choose to lie in loose houses, or indeed in fields, they rarely choose to lie in close proximity to each other. In fact, if your cows are lying close to one another, it is worth looking for a reason why – are they looking for example for shade, or fresh air? Yet when dividers are put in place in cubicles, they will quite frequently choose to lie right next to each other. This means space and bedding can be used far more efficiently. However, it is essential that your cubicles are the appropriate size/shape for your cows (and also that cows are giving appropriate loafing area – the kitchen/communal areas in the Youth Hostel).

Surely no one would build a cubicle that doesn’t fit their cows? As cows sizes have become more variable, and a variety of cubicle manufacturers and installers are available, it is not unusual to see cubicles that could be improved to increase cow comfort, lying times and all the associated benefits that are far too numerous to list here.

So how do you know if your cubicle design is right? Tape measure? Pythogarous? None of that needed – ask your cows. If you go out to the shed a few hours after milking, most cows should be either up at the feed face eating or lying down. Those standing in cubicles, or perched with just their front feet in the cubicle indicate a reluctance to lie down as there is something challenging their normal action. Similarly, where do their bums end up? If it is in a straight line, just level with the back of the bed, that indicates a bed that all cows are getting into (and aware of how to get out of) in a consistent manner, which means they suit your cows. If it looks more like a profile of a Tour de France stage with some hanging out, others a long way in, this indicates your cubicles could be improved for your cows.

Cows obviously don’t just go into cubicles, they have to come out as well. Watch your cows as they rise – do they do it automatically with little thought, lunging forwards before rocking back onto their hind legs? Or do they either take their time with foot placement? Or rush to stand up quickly? Either of these indicate something challenging that animal’s ability to get up. Imagine getting out of bed with a bar off to the side just above lying height – you would quickly learn from bumping your head to either take your time sliding out of bed or rush trying to leap it. This will mean cows will lie down less often, but for longer when they do limiting feed intakes and natural behaviour.

If you are now looking at your cubicle thinking something may be not quite right, I would suggest next time your vet is out on farm engineering a reason for them to come and give you an experienced eye on it. Often the solution requires little more than a spanner and some time. Sometimes the solution is far more drastic.

If you are looking at putting in new cubicles and want to get it right first time, I would encourage looking at the Kinghsay Farming report on cubicle dividers, and the following website, which shows the ideal cubicle dimensions for different cow sizes: www.dairyweb.ca/Resources/WCDS2009/Cook2.pdf

If you would like an assessment of your current cubicles, please do not hesitate to get in touch.

Written by Phil Elkins BVM&S Cert AVP (Cattle) MRCVS

Following stints working in Devon, Cheshire and New Zealand Phil joined Westpoint in 2009 and now works from our St Columb practice in Cornwall. Phil’s main clinical interests are based around improving farm businesses through structured herd interventions. He currently sits on the milk hygiene working group within Westpoint and has been integral in the introduction of the Milk4life plans. He has recently gained his Certificate in Advanced Veterinary Practice.