The cow’s environment is a major component in performance – but cow comfort is still often undervalued.
For one dairy farm in Dumfries, a mattress upgrade has lifted daily individual yields by up to two litres.
SRUC’s Crichton Royal Farm in Dumfries is a renowned dairy research establishment. However, it still encounters the challenges of a commercial farm and must produce milk at a profit – at the same time as addressing its role in scientific trials.
So when farm manager Hugh McClymont proposed to invest £16,000 in cow comfort, this had to align with both the farm’s research and commercial objectives.
One of the farm’s aims is to improve cow health and welfare using methods that are transferable to UK dairy herds and beyond, says Mr McClymont.
“And while the farm is unlike a normal commercial unit it is still a business producing for a contract, with the research taking into consideration economic viability.”
In September 2019, the herd was just meeting the minimum target lying time – averaging 10.07 hours per day.
Each additional hour of lying time over 10 hours should add milk to the bulk tank. Just one additional litre per cow per day equates to an extra 54,000 litres – or £15,120 – over a herd lactation, says Mr McClymont. Without requiring extra feed this is an attractive prospect.
Quarterly scoring and daily checks highlighted that hock rubs and hair loss were present throughout the groups.
“Alongside lower lying times this indicated that the beds weren’t giving the comfort levels we would want.”
Upon inspection of the beds, wear and tear was obvious. “The dairy housing was modernised in 2005 with the installation of 200 Cow Comfort cubicles, followed by Wilson Agri Original Pasture Mats in 2008,” says Mr McClymont.
Following discussions with cow welfare experts, he decided to invest in the cow beds to improve comfort and welfare.
“A complete overhaul was an unnecessary cost,” says Charlie Sutcliffe, senior UK sales manager at Wilson Agri, which supplied and arranged third party fitting of the mattress upgrades in November 2019.
“The pasture mats in situ were still good enough to provide a raised and insulating base.
“To address hock rubs and increase lying times, a 30mm latex foam premium pad was installed on top of the old mat, and then covered with a latex waterproof top.”
The upgrade took around two days, based on 100 cow spaces per day with no structural changes to cubicles required.
In total, it cost £80 per cow, which will pay back in 12 months through increased productivity of just one additional litre at the current milk price. In comparison, a complete new mattress with install would cost £115 per cow.
Lying time has increased by an average of 1.5 hours –and up to two hours in some groups. “The results in yield are exceptional, with an average two litre increase over the period since the upgrade,” explains Mr McClymont.
This is generating an additional income of £168 per cow per lactation. That is a herd return of £30,240 on an investment of about £16,000.
Lameness and lesion scores have also improved, he explains. “The hock rubs and hair loss have reduced considerably – and lameness has certainly improved with 28 per cent fewer treatments to date,” says Mr McClymont.
“Although we are checking more feet, we aren’t seeing the same level of lameness,” says Mr McClymont.
“Improved lying times mean that the cows are off their feet for longer. We know this helps reduce lameness and yields are less likely to be inhibited by discomfort,” he maintains.
And with lameness treatments costing around £320 per case, a reduction in incidence is further boosting return on investment.
“We are on an Arla 360 contract so we must submit scores quarterly, including locomotion, lesions, cleanliness and body condition. But we score fortnightly for our own records and management,” he explains.
Mr McClymont needed to produce evidence that the mattress upgrade had a secured return on investment before rolling it the improvements to the other farms.
“The technology has enabled us to produce and compare accurate data detailing the changes in lying times against the changes in yields since the mattress upgrade,” explains Mr McClymont.
“This year we have tendered from Wilson Agri for a further 450 mattress upgrades to improve the welfare, yields and lameness on our other units.”