Cow comfort: 1) Animal signs

Your cows are continually telling you how well you’re doing in providing them with good health, excellent housing and superb feeding. The Cow Signals concept helps you to pick up this information and use it to improve the welfare, health and production of your cows – in a very practical way. Remember, dairy farming is about cows. (Jan Hulsen, Author of Cow Signals©)

What are animal signs?

A cow gives signals all the time about her welfare and health. She does this with behaviour, attitude, body language and body condition. You can use these cow signs to optimise your herd health, comfort and milk production results. Train yourself to observe, evaluate, and find solutions for the benefit of your cows and business.

Ask yourself:
What do I see?
What is causing this?
What does this mean?

How to judge cow signs

Judging an animal is not as easy as it may look. Please study the animal signs list closely and learn it by heart. Each time you walk among your cows, select one and check her in accordance with the key indicators for a healthy cow as outlined here. Once you have checked a few cows like this, you will start to gain an understanding of cow comfort and see possible issues that may need resolving. Please do not draw conclusions in this phase, as you still need to check the body condition score and the locomotion score.

Performance: cows should perform comfortably with minimal stress. An unbalanced walk or a curved back could indicate lameness or digestion problems.

Condition: cow condition tells you a lot about the rations you have fed the cow. Cows too fat or too skinny will not produce to their full potential. Use body condition score to assess condition.

Temperature: a cow should have a temperature of 38 to 39 °C. Cold ears might indicate milk fever or blood circulation problems.

Legs: heel erosion or skinned heels are mainly caused by problems with bedding or bedding materials, incorrectly adjusted barn equipment and/or hoof infection.

Ruminating: a cow should ruminate for seven to 10 hours per day, ruminating 40 to 70 times on a cud. Taking less time indicates inadequate rations.

Manure: should not be too thick or thin and should never have undigested particles in it.

Alert: a healthy cow looks alert and powerful, with a glossy skin and a full stomach.

Neck: a swollen neck is mainly caused by a feed fence being too low or incorrectly adjusted barn equipment.

Hooves: healthy cows stand straight and still while eating. Tipping or walking with lame gait are signs of poor hoof health. This can be caused by bad rations, poor floors or lack of hoof treatment. Always look underneath hoofs during hoof trimming for extra signs and judge hoof health with locomotion scoring.

Udder: to assess udder health, look carefully at the teats after milking. Good teats are flexible and naturally coloured. Poor udder health can be caused by hygiene problems, poor milking equipment installation or inadequate feed rations.

Rumen: rumen should be filled with feed. The left side of the stomach (seen from behind the cow) should protrude. If you press your fist into the rumen it should contract firmly about 10 to 12 times in five minutes.

Breathing: normal breathing ranges from 10 to 30 breaths a minute for a cow. Faster breathing indicates heat stress or pain and fever.