What Are Your Cows Telling You?

Posted: July 24, 2018 | Written By: Kevin Buttles, Form-A-Feed Nutrition and Production Specialist

what are your cows telling you

I often tell a dairy producer that I must speak for the cows when I am justifying the need to make a change to a feeding strategy, management protocol, facility design, and so on.   I don’t like to give human emotions and qualities to cows, but we often hear about the importance of having happy cows.  Are our cows happy and comfortable every day, giving them the opportunity to reach their production potential each day?  Obviously, they can’t really tell us what is on their minds, but they certainly show us how they feel through their behavior and reaction to their environment, handling, and care.

Here are five things that I often see cows telling us about their day without saying a word.

  1. “I’m tired.”  Cows are returning from the parlor and headed right back to the free stalls instead of a leisurely walk back to the pen, catching a drink of water, and stopping for a good meal at the bunk before going to lie down.  Are the cows spending more than 45 minutes away from their pen during each milking?


  1. “My shoes don’t seem to fit.” Cows that stand and walk around with an arch to their backs are usually dealing with some type of foot issue.  They may need an immediate fix to some type of insult to a foot, but many times the cow is simply asking for a minimum of two corrective foot trims a year to keep her toes in balance and feet wearing correctly.  At dry off and again in mid lactating would be appropriate times for a trim, catching the cow before she has a foot problem.


  1. “I am afraid to lie down.” All cows should be using the free stalls, and when they get to a stall should lie down shortly thereafter and be positioned straight in the stall from head to tail.  They should be able to get up and down with ease.  The lack of stall usage, cows standing in stalls, and cow injuries are all signs that stall size or design do not meet the comfort needs of your cows.


  1. “My gut doesn’t feel good.” There can be obvious ways, but also very subtle ways that cows tell us that they don’t feel good.  Cows that free choice an unusual amount of salt or sodium bicarb, eat sand, or lick urine may be experiencing a high toxin load, spoiled feed, an improperly balanced diet, or an improperly delivered diet.  Cows that lack rumination time that is affecting gut health may need more total fiber (NDF) in their diet, or they may need more effective fiber (peNDF) in their diet, or they may need more digestible fiber (dNDF) in their diet. And it may not be related to any of these fiber fractions, but instead, the cow may be lacking resting time.


  1. “My diet keeps changing on me.” Unless there are large variations in cows entering or leaving a pen or herd, dry matter intake and, therefore, milk production and components, should remain consistent.  When they don’t, check dry matters on forages,  forage quality, or the presence of yeast, molds, and toxins.  Also check for TMR sorting, feed availability and eating patterns.  Of course, we all know that cows don’t like change.  And we know it because they “tell” us every day!

Are you watching your cows for these signs? Your Form-A-Feed nutritionist’s goal is to be your second eyes and ears to listen to what your cows are telling you!

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