Conditions of housing key to milk production
The advent of shorter days, low temperatures and inclement weather is now upon us as we head into November. It is now time to get cattle housed for the winter months.
The duration of the housing period varies tremendously throughout Ireland. We have clients in the North who have their cows housed throughout the year, which in my opinion results in too many welfare issues associated with legs and feet. However, cows are now housed full-time on farms using grass-based milk production systems in Fermanagh and Antrim. In contrast, cows are still out on a full-time basis in Cork, Waterford and Tipperary.
With an emphasis placed on cost-efficient milk production, farmers are looking at cheaper options to house their cows when existing facilities will not cope with the requirement for herd expansion. To this end, I have seen contrasts in terms of costs and cow welfare.
I had the privilege of visiting a farm in the midlands that installed a stand-off pad five years ago and the farmer has just built a shed for 320 cows.
The stand-off pad was installed with animal comfort and welfare in mind. The top-soil was removed. A liner, which prevented drainage to the sub-soil, was installed with drainage pipes at 2m intervals, draining to a lagoon with secure fencing. Drainage stone (150mm) was placed over the drainage pipes. A further 450mm of 75mm broken stone was placed above the drainage stone. Bark (900mm) was then placed over the broken stone. A concrete apron with scrapers was installed at the feeding face to facilitate ease of feeding cattle. The current costs of pad maintenance is €75/year/LU (livestock unit).
The primary advantage of the stand-off pad was that cattle maintained a healthy status. Maiden heifers continued bulling activity, whereas heifers were in pre-pubertal state after housing on slats indoors for the winter.
They have discontinued its use for the lactating dairy cows. The past three winters were wet and cold. Last year the cows made holes in the pad from lying in huddles in frosty weather. The cows lost too much body condition in these extreme wet and frosty conditions.
The greatest problems arise when the pad becomes frozen. Water cannot drain from the pad. We have one documented case where cows bullied each other for access to an unfrozen area to lie down, resulting in 14 of 70 cows slipping calves in late pregnancy.