Watching For The Signs


The Millennium has changed!  The milk pricing structure has changed, and so has the way we need to handle our nutrients on the farm!  The one thing that hasn¡¯t changed is the need to care for our animals.  In the hustle and bustle of doing stuff around the farm, sometimes we forget to read the behavioral signs that our animals are displaying telling us how they really feel.  Sometimes the signs mean nothing at all.  Sometimes, however,  they may mean the difference between profit and loss.  All signs must be evaluated.


It was a 10 degree morning and the cows had been let out after milking to an exercise lot with a feed bunk.  Most of the cows were either drinking or eating, but one stood by herself.  As you watched her you could see that while vapor from all of the cows¡¯ breaths was evident, the vapor from this one cow was much greater.  The owner spotted this and brought the cow back in the barn to take her temperature.  ¡°It¡¯s l03.5 degrees¡±, he said.  She had calved a week earlier and he wondered about a uterine infection.


Point #1

In animals that have strong herding or flocking instincts, such as cattle, sheep, and goats, if one animal is off by itself, then you should try to determine why!  Usually, you will find that animal has some distress that overcomes the desire to mingle with the rest of the group.


Speaking of animals being by themselves, sometimes animals who are at the bottom of the pecking order, or social hierarchy, will be forced to wait while others feed or drink.  Research has shown that the lowest ranking cow in the herd will usually feed only at the ends of feed bunks and for a shorter period of time.   These low ranked cows will spend a great deal of time waiting for the higher ranked cows to move away from the ends of the feed bunk.  In contrast, the ¡°boss¡± cows will shove their way from one end of the bunk to the other, feeding along the way.   When feed bunks are crowded these low-end animals will do even worse.  Do each of your cows have 2 feet of bunk from which to feed?


Point #2

These social patterns exist in all of our common livestock species and have implications as to how we group and feed our animals.  Young and smaller animals will not compete for food as well as larger or older animals.  In beef, sheep and goats we build creep feeders to allow the young some uninterrupted feeding time with high-nutrient-density feeds.  In dairy cattle, first-calf heifers who generally have a 15% higher nutrient need due to the fact that they are still growing as well as lactating, deserve special consideration.    When we mix these ¡°inexperienced¡± heifers with the established milkers, they often don¡¯t compete well at the bunk.  If housing design permits, there is merit in grouping these heifers by themselves.  Studies done with beef cattle have shown that two year old heifers grouped with older cows, both on pasture and at the feed bunk, actually lost weight as compared with heifers housed together!

Cows, sheep, and goats are ruminants, and  being  ruminants,  they  need  time  to ruminate (chew their cuds).  Studies that have been done with cattle indicate that cows spend about 9 hours a day chewing their cuds, and 8 hours of that time is spent lying down!   In fact, cows lie down more than 12 hours out of every day.  The question is, how good a spot do we provide for our animals to lie down?  Think about the rest of a cow¡¯s day, also.  If half of it is lying down, where is the other half spent?  Cows generally only feed for 8-9 hours with 3-4 hours of idle time.


Point #3

We need to take advantage of an animal¡¯s natural behaviors.  In other words, we need to manage our herds and flocks to take advantage of the biology, rather than trying to get our animals to do something they don¡¯t want to do.  We need stalls and pens that allow these ruminants a comfortable, dry spot on which to lie.  When we see animals lying on bare concrete in alleys, we need to recognize that we need to change something.  It may mean that the stalls we have provided are not comfortable to lie in or it could mean that once they lie down there is inadequate provision to lunge forward and get back to their feet.  Cows lying in scrape alleys may be telling us there aren¡¯t enough stalls or they might be telling us that it is cooler out there in the alley!  Thus, we may need to re-evaluate our ventilation.


There are other animal signals that we need to watch for as we observe our animals.  The bellowing that we hear needs to be put in the context of the herd.  Is it an animal coming in heat?  Is it an animal that has calved?  Is it an animal that is stuck in the fence?  Or might it be an animal that just sees another animal which it wants to join.   It could be an animal who is in pain.  Sometimes if we watch animals at the waterer, we can get some signals.  Is the animal who is just lapping the water afraid of getting a shock if she sticks her nose all the way into the water?  Is the water fresh and the waterer clean?  Sometimes the slime and scum will present a strong odor, and cows won¡¯t drink all that they should.


So observe your animals and look for signs that single out an animal that is doing something out of the ordinary.  Then try to figure out if that animal is trying to tell you something.   That thin cow may be ill, or she may not be getting enough to eat!  If she is dirty with mud or manure she may be losing body heat and needs to eat just to keep warm.  She won¡¯t do her best until we do our best to provide for her needs.


William E. Graves

Dept. of Veterinary and Animal Sciences

University of Massachusetts

Crops, Dairy, Livestock News Vol. 4:1, Winter 2000

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