Farm Ireland

Wednesday 17 January 2018

Conditions of housing key to milk production

The duration of the housing period varies tremendously throughout
Ireland, and cows are still outside on a full-time basis in Cork, Waterford and Tipperary
The duration of the housing period varies tremendously throughout Ireland, and cows are still outside on a full-time basis in Cork, Waterford and Tipperary

Dr Dan Ryan

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.

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The pad is definitely not for lactating cows, according to these farmers. The cows become too dirty, resulting in all the associated health problems.

The new cow house for 320 cows has comfort with performance in mind. The first priority was a feeding space for every cow. This ensures that the first calvers are not bullied and facilitates buffer feeding as required during the summer months.


Cow cubicles are of a cantilever-adjustable type, enabling freedom of movement thus avoiding hock and leg injuries. The cubicles are 10ft long, giving a lunge distance of 4'2" from the brisket board. Mayo mats were installed in the cubicles on the basis of cost, durability and comparisons with other breeding materials.

The cubicles are kept dry by dusting with an absorbent powder on a daily basis. Care has to be taken when using sawdust because sharp pieces will result in hock infections.

The most striking feature with this housing facility is the use of ventilation and light. An 8ft-wide ventilation and lighting ridge was installed down the centre of the building. This ridge acts like a chimney to draw harmful gases out of the shed, thus enabling the cows to perform to their best. Side sheeting was kept one foot out from the wall of the shed and stopped one foot short of the roof, thus aiding air to be drawn into the shed.

Water is supplied through 10 45ga drinkers, with 6ft of drinking space and replenished at a rate of 40ga a minute through fast-flow ballcocks. The drinkers are on a swivel to help with tipping over and cleaning on a weekly basis. Cows, therefore, have access to a plentiful supply of clean drinking water.

The scrapers installed drop the slurry in concrete channels every four spans, which avoids a build-up of slurry on a cow's feet. Self-locking barriers have been installed to facilitate routines such as AI, scanning, tail-painting and vaccination programmes, thus minimising stress on the cows.

The farmer asked me to come at night to appreciate the shed in terms of cow comfort. The intensity of lighting struck me immediately. Metal-alloyed 400-watt bulbs, which deliver in excess of 200 lux at cow level, have been installed. They maintain 17 hours of 'daylight' and seven hours of uninterrupted darkness, which has been purported to increase milk production by 8-10pc. Red lights (10 watt) have also been installed to aid observation of cows but do not affect the cows' perception of darkness.

I believe that Irish cows need to be housed during the winter months. Stand-off pads may work in the extreme south of the country, where cows have access to grass immediately after calving, but many pads are not installed or maintained properly, which results in cow welfare issues.

Cow housing with proper ventilation, feed space, drinking water, lying areas and lighting will always be conducive to a healthy cow. It's not just the costs that need to be borne in mind when evaluating efficient systems. The welfare of the cow and the perception of the consumer count too.

Dr Dan Ryan is a reproductive management consultant.

Irish Independent