Reading cow signals


If we take the time to look at our cows, they can tell us a lot about what is going on. With a little bit of practice, you can use cow signals to make tweaks on farm to improve the health and productivity of your herd.




Looking at the dung of cows can tell you a lot about rumen health and the quality of their diet. Very firm dung indicates a high-fibre diet and looser dung indicates a diet lower in fibre. For high-production dairy cows, dung will always be on the looser side because of the higher-energy, lower-fibre diet required to support milk production but it is important to find the balance between rumen health and productivity.When cows are grazing lush pasture, feeding a little hay or straw can help to improve rumen health by adding effective fibre to their diet. Someone once told me that the perfect cow poo of a high-production dairy cow should sound like a slow clap when it lands on the ground!

Dung containing bubbles can be a sign of ruminal acidosis. The bubbles are produced by fermentation in the lower digestive system, rather than in the rumen, which is indicative of rumen dysfunction. Undigested long fibre particles in the dung can also be a sign that rumen health is sub-optimal as it indicates fibre is not being broken down effectively. The dung of cows across a herd should be consistent if they are eating the same diet – having a variety of dung consistencies within a herd indicates a feed management issue.




Rumination or 'chewing the cud' is important for cows as it helps to breakdown fibrous material in their diet into smaller particle sizes so that microorganisms in the rumen can ferment it and turn it into energy and protein a cow can then absorb and utilise. When a cow's rumen is functioning well, feed will not pass on to the lower digestive system until it has reached a certain particle size. Chewing activity also produces a lot of saliva which helps to buffer the rumen and keep it at the correct pH level.

The more fibre there is in the diet, the more a cow will ruminate, so rumination activity is highly correlated to the quality of the diet on offer. Rumination is also highly correlated to dry matter intake, so the more a cow eats in a day, the more she will ruminate.

Rumination collars are now available that record rumination and this can be used, along with walking activity, to pick when a cow is on heat (as cows will eat less and move more when on heat). This new technology can also be harnessed to help assess the diet on offer to cows and identify feed management issues. Rumination collars are great for recording how many minutes per day cows are ruminating, but if you do not have them there is always the old school way of counting how many times a cow chews a bolus before swallowing, which gives an indication of the fibre level of the diet.

Pick out a couple of cows in the herd and wait until they bring a bolus from their rumen into their mouth then count how many chews they do until they swallow it. As a rough rule of thumb, if the cows are chewing less than 40 or more than 50 times per bolus, the forage may be a little light or heavy on structural fibre respectively.



Condition score

Now this is a sign that all farmers will be familiar with! Condition score is a measure of how much body fat is on an animal. Cow condition scoring is done on a scale of 1–10 in New Zealand. There are some critical condition score targets that must be met throughout the season. One target that will be on your mind now is getting your cows in good condition before mating begins. DairyNZ suggests that cows should not lose more than one condition score from calving through to mating and cows should be in a state of actively putting on weight for best mating results. If you are not that confident condition scoring your cows then learn how to do it (DairyNZ offers a great course) or get an expert to run their eye over your herd. Now is a great time to identify cows that need some extra help to put on condition before mating kicks off. There are some options for nutritional inputs to help improve energy supply in the lead up to mating such as high-energy compound feed and blends. Chat to your local Nutrition Specialist if you want to explore your options.



Locomotion score

Foot health is extremely important for New Zealand dairy cows as they must graze to harvest grass, and an issue with feet can decrease feed intake and very quickly impact on body condition and productivity. One way we can check in on the foot health of a herd is to locomotion score. Observing back posture, head and limb position, and behaviour when cows are walking can give us insight into their foot health. A lame cow will tend to have an arched back and carry their head lower and away from their body as they walk. As lameness gets progressively worse, cows will start to show a reluctance to bear weight on a certain limb and will head bob when the affected hoof contacts the ground. Locomotion scoring should be observed when cows are walking on a flat surface that provides good footing. When cows are walking to or from the milking shed it is the perfect time to quietly observe them.

Often, what you see every day becomes normal to you, so having an outsider take a look can help to identify what is off and needs reviewing. NRM's on-farm team are very experienced with reading cow signals and see lots of cows across all regions.