Management strategies for overcrowding
By Mac Campbell, East Coast Dairy Technical Manager
Sometimes it can be difficult to observe the negative impacts of significant overcrowding (stocking density > 120%), as only some of the pen is affected. For example, let’s look at the performance of three cows in an overcrowded pen. Two of them perform at 100% of potential (dominant cows in the pen), but one of them performs at only 70% (subdominant cow). Averaged together, you have an overall score of 90%, much closer to the expected potential of the pen and differences that are often hard to see.
However, pushing higher levels of stocking density will continue to separate the potential of animals, sometimes even limiting the top performers. To maximize your herd’s potential when overcrowding, we must focus on management strategies to address changes in subdominant cow behavior and minimize extra stressors.
- Maximize usability of resources – When a subdominant cow finally has access to limited resources in the pen, we want to make sure she takes advantage of them before a dominant cow does. This includes maximizing stall comfort with extra bedding; comfortable, groomed, and level stall surfaces; and proper stall loop/neck and rail/breast board placement. We want to avoid any factors that would limit her want to utilize the resource when she finally gains access.
- Prioritize cleanliness and proper milking protocols – Under normal conditions, most cows after milking will eat, drink, then lie down. In overcrowded pens, subdominant animals often find this time to regain access to a stall, lying down immediately upon return from the parlor. In this case, the cow’s teat ends may still be open from their previous milking, and this can lead to an increased risk of mastitis and higher somatic cell counts (SCCs). Ensuring consistent and proper teat coverage with post-dip, regularly cleaning stalls, and using lime and extra bedding can all help minimize exposure and risk.
- Ensure a proper hoof health program – With limited freestall access, overstocking results in increased standing times in pens. This can put undue stress on feet and legs, placing cows at more risk of hoof health issues. Consider the following: Developing a consistent footbath program to limit infectious disease; scrabbling concrete to limit slips; rubber flooring to ease stress on legs; implementing a consistent trimming schedule throughout the year, with a target of two trims per lactation. Furthermore, work with your farm consultants to monitor locomotion scoring over time, particularly if cows are exposed to long-term overcrowding.
- Minimize time budget interruption – With limited time to achieve their lying and feeding needs, additional time constraints can exacerbate these resource restrictions for subdominant cows. Evaluate parlor efficiency to limit time outside the pen. Bed and scrape pens while cows are in the parlor, if possible, to limit further disturbance. Minimize time spent locked for vet, herd check or breeding.
This article originally published in Progressive Dairy. You can access the full article here.