What Cows Want - The right ergonomics keep cows healthy, happy 

By Amanda Halbersma April 01, 2015

Communicating with the management didn’t come naturally. She didn’t know how to tell dairy farm owners Martin and Erica van Rooyen what was bothering her. So she shuffled around in silence, and her productivity stalled.

Then one day, a group of experts spent a few hours with Cow #43 and her herd at the van Rooyen’s farm. By carefully observing her and her environment, they picked up on her signals. She was shuffling because her hooves were irritated, and she wasn’t resting well.

The experts suggested that the van Rooyens expand the cows’ resting spaces (stalls) and that they start giving Cow #43 regular professional hoof trims, including foot baths—essentially, bovine pedicures. Now, Cow #43 is over the moon, and it shows in her milk production.

“You can see the dairy cows are happier because there is extra milk in the tank, and they get pregnant quicker,” said Martin van Rooyen, who is also happier when his lactating cows are comfortable, healthy and profitable. “It all comes down to cow comfort.”

Cow comfort is precisely the goal of the CowSignals training program, which gives dairy farmers a structured framework for analyzing cow ergonomics—the factors in their environment that affect their comfort, milk production and longevity in the herd.

Two years ago, Cargill was the first North American feed company to promote the CowSignals program in Eastern Canada. The founder of the CowSignals Training Company, self-professed “Cowmunicator” Dr. Joep Driessen, traveled from the Netherlands to Ontario to train Cargill employees in the program. Now, 14 Cargill feed consultants have become certified master CowSignals trainers, working with dairy farmers in Ontario and Quebec to host CowSignals sessions in their barns. The Cargill trainers lead attendees from neighboring farms through the careful observation process trademarked by the CowSignals program.

“We are attracting the best producers in the field with the program, who want to improve and want to be a part of what we are doing here,” said Charles Lapointe, managing director of Cargill Feed & Nutrition Eastern Canada. More than 100 dairy farmers in Eastern Canada have hosted CowSignals sessions since 2013.

“We are always open to getting better,” said van Rooyen, who hosted one of the first CowSignals sessions in his area. “CowSignals really makes you think. It’s so easy to blame nutrition or feed when a cow has issues. With CowSignals, we look much deeper into the surrounding factors as well.”

Reading the Signals

At a training session at Pol Acres Ltd., Cargill Feed & Nutrition Consultant and CowSignals Coordinator Darryl Smith encouraged absorption in the cow experience. For three hours, participants wandered among the cows—taking measurements, kneeling to test the comfort of their bedding, examining any bumps or scratches on the cows and crouching down to cow eye-level to get readings from light meters.

Brian Pol, owner of Pol Acres Ltd., said he appreciates that the feedback from outsiders is tailored to his particular 150-cow operation. It adds to his practical knowledge and helps him think about why his cows behave the way they do.

“It shows consumers that I have the same common interest as they do,” he said. “I want to have happy, healthy cows. That is my goal.”

According to a 2012 report for the Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare, up to 70 percent of consumers in industrialized nations are willing to pay more for products produced with higher animal welfare standards. Although there is currently no branding to let consumers know whether their milk comes from dairy farms that have participated in CowSignals, the Canadian milk industry is moving toward higher animal welfare standards, and CowSignals participation could help farmers meet those standards.

Today, the payoff is healthier, more productive cows. The Cargill team hopes to quantify not only how well Cow Signals recommendations work for a dairy operation, but how well it works for the cows. They’re collecting data on increases in cow longevity, and counting average cow pregnancies and the resulting lactation cycles.

The van Rooyens say the changes they’ve implemented from the program have increased not only the output of Cow #43, but the rest of their herd. It also has solidified their relationship with Cargill.

“It feels like a good relationship,” said Erica van Rooyen. “We want to increase our bottom line. So we want to stick with a company that helps us achieve that goal.”