Dairy Stockmanship


5 min read

A good and safe dairy environment helps to… Stockmanship in the dairy How to create a good dairy set up Managing multiple mobs Cow senses and behaviours Bringing cows to the dairy

Dairy stockmanship covers interactions between cows and people, and when practiced effectively, creates a safe and efficient work environment; it also improves animal health and production. Therefore, understanding how cows experience the world can help improve dairy stockmanship practices and makes moving cattle on your farm easier. Everyone should be trained in basic stockmanship skills to increase work efficiency, reduce stress on cows and people, and also reduce lameness and injuries.

A good and safe dairy environment helps to…

  • Maximise cow flow and smooth movement
  • Reduce lameness and injuries
  • Address welfare issues
  • Keep animals be less fearful
  • Improve production and speed of let-down

Cows are creatures of habit and they respond better if they have a routine that is consistent and predictable. While an unfamiliar feature of the dairy may initially provoke fear, cows will learn to become familiar with that feature over time. If things are constantly changing, a cow will not be able to adjust, and the cow’s sensitivity will be heightened, making her overly fearful of people, a particular location or physical structure.

Stockmanship in the dairy

Cows have good short-term and long-term memories, and will readily learn a variety of tasks. This characteristic is one reason why cattle respond well to consistent handling routines.

Strong physical or emotional experiences (good food, fear, pain) are likely to result in long lasting memories. Cattle learn to associate people or locations with rewarding or negative experiences.

There are a number of factors that provoke fear in cows: fear of heights, sudden movements and noises, threatening or aggressive actions, prolonged eye contact, and large or towering objects. Fear responses should be minimised by appropriate handling behaviour and good dairy design.

The effects of fear can have a significant impact on the efficiency and productivity of the milk harvesting system and can result in the following:

  • Handling becomes harder, more time-consuming and more dangerous.
  • Milk yield declines.
  • Milk let-down is impaired.
  • Cows become more prone to injuries.
  • Welfare is compromised.

Address welfare issues

Pain, stress, and fear are all animal welfare issues and need to be avoided if possible. Not only are they ethically unacceptable, but there are local community and international market expectations to meet.

Fear and let down

Fear causes the release of the hormone adrenaline into the blood stream causing a ‘fight or flight’ response.

Adrenaline primes the body for action by increasing the heart rate and blood flow to the muscles. It also blocks the action of the milk ‘let-down’ hormone oxytocin. This effect can last up to 30 minutes from a single release of adrenaline.

For more information on milk let down click here.

The cow fear diagram

How to create calm behaviour

  • Avoid hits, slaps and tail twists as they all provoke fear, even when they are not forceful. Research has shown that negative handling of heifers increases fear of humans and flight distances.
  • Avoid sudden or unusual movements that will cause a fearful response.
  • Avoid shouting or behaving in a threatening manner. Entering into the flight zone will provoke fear especially if the cow cannot move away.
  • The degree of fear a cow experiences is intensified in an unfamiliar environment or circumstance. It is important to keep features such as lighting, floor surfaces, levels, fences, or wall types as consistent as possible.
  • Avoid painful milkings e.g. due to poor machine set up, incidences of mastitis or poor handling (like hitting). Avoid painful procedures in the dairy at all times.
  • Ensure milking machines are maintained and stray voltage is eliminated.
  • Give some supplementary feed as a reward after bad experiences such as restraining or health related procedures.
  • Keep the milking routine calm and consistent. This means that all milkers need to know the milking routine. It should be written down and communicated to any new milkers.
  • Put bends on pipes to avoid cow injury and jammed wash down hoses.

How to create a good dairy set up

The dairy needs a good entry, exit and platform to ensure smooth access and no surprises.

Eliminate all factors that could cause cows to shy away from the dairy entry or exit such as:

  • Poor lighting
  • Slippery floor surfaces
  • Sharp turns
  • Pipework and posts (check all pipework in the dairy to ensure it isn’t causing cows pain or discomfort).
  • Inadequate space allowances e.g. the first bail in herringbones or an unsuitably angled head gate.

Learn about cow behaviour to help you understand how the handling of cows can affect their willingness to enter the dairy. Observe cows during a milking to see if platform design, including pipework and layout, encourages good cow flow on entry and exit.

Managing multiple mobs

During certain times of the year, particularly spring, it’s highly likely the herd will be organised into multiple mobs. It’s important to manage these mobs in a way that will minimise impact on the milking routine. The mobs could include any combination of the following: main milking mob, dry cows, springers, colostrums/sick cows (e.g. mastitis and lame cows).

  • Ensure there is a clear system which all staff understand for multiple mobs.
  • Multiple mob management can be included in your Farm Operations Manual.
  • Consider using a white board system to keep staff informed.
  • Keep any treated or sick cows well away from the milking herds.
  • Always milk the special care or treated cows last to avoid spreading illness and downgrading milk quality.
  • Follow MRST (Mark, Record, Separate, Treat) when treating cows with antibiotics to avoid milk quality issues.
  • Plan pasture rotations to try and minimise the distance travelled for milking by special care mobs.
  • If cows have been dried off and treated with a Dry Cow Therapy, while there is still a milking mob, then the dry cows must be very clearly identifiable and held behind very secure fencing as they adjust to the new routine and lower feed rations.
  • Remember cows are herd animals. If you must separate one, ideally give her a couple of companions to keep her company to reduce anxiety and potential risk of injury.
  • If you have separate paddocks for colostrum and springer cows, do not spread effluent on them as it can result in metabolic issues. If effluent has been applied leave it for at least a week before grazing.

Cow senses and behaviours

Understanding how cows experience the world differently to us can make moving cattle much easier on your farm. Everyone should be trained in basic stockmanship skills. It will help increase work efficiency, reduce stress on cows and people, and also reduce lameness and injuries.

Understanding how cows experience the world differently

Cow senses

Video 1:26 min

Bringing cows to the dairy

Poor cow flow is not usually a problem with the cows, but a problem with the environment. If cows are consistently slow on tracks and races, investigate the cause and correct it.

If cows have their heads raised when they are moved, or in the yard, it’s a sign that too much pressure is being placed on the herd and they are too tightly packed. They will be unable to watch where they place their feet or to avoid more dominant cows.

  • Movement in groups is best - cows will follow their herd mates.
  • Always use patience when herding cows, moving them gently on tracks and through gateways.
  • Avoid using dogs unless they are particularly quiet. Leave your dog tied up away from the dairy yard.
  • Talk to cows to keep them moving, but don’t frighten them. Use positive interactions such as a stroke, rub, or gentle contact.
  • Use separate herds for heifers and older cows, especially on farms with large herds. Although they will form a social hierarchy within their own herds, this will help prevent excessive bullying.
  • If the herd stops, do not put pressure on the rear cows. They will not move if the dominant cows in front of them have stopped. Move to the front of the herd and encourage the front cows to continue moving.
  • Make rules. For example, people on bikes should not be closer than two fenceposts behind the last cows. Make sure everyone knows the rules.
Last updated: Aug 2023

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