Jennifer Van Os, University of Wisconsin-Madison assistant professor of dairy science and extension animal welfare specialist, takes notes while conducting an airflow study in a cross-ventilated barn at Rosy-Lane Holsteins in Watertown, Wis. Photo by Michael P. King/UW-Madison CALS
Jennifer Van Os, University of Wisconsin-Madison assistant professor of dairy science and extension animal welfare specialist, takes notes while conducting an airflow study in a cross-ventilated barn at Rosy-Lane Holsteins in Watertown, Wis.

Professor, dairy farm collaborate to help cows keep their cool

Madison dairy science assistant professor working with dairy farmers on strategies they implement to promote cow comfort.

On hot days, the cows at Rosy-Lane Holsteins in Watertown, Wis., are given cool showers while they’re being milked, and the farm’s newborn calves are housed in pairs to enhance their social and cognitive development, according to an announcement from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

University of Wisconsin-Madison assistant professor of dairy science and extension animal welfare specialist Jennifer Van Os wants to know how those ideas are working out — for the cows and for the farm.

Van Os is eager to learn about strategies that Wisconsin farmers employ to promote cow comfort, the university said. Since she joined the University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty last spring, she has traveled the state to meet with milk producers, processors and others concerned about the well-being of Wisconsin’s dairy herd.

“I wanted to see what people in the industry considered to be their strengths and challenges when it comes to animal welfare. I perceive that there’s a lot of support for my position,” she said. “A lot of farmers understand that they’re facing public scrutiny, and to be truly sustainable, you need public acceptance for agricultural practices.”

That sentiment is echoed at Rosy-Lane Holsteins, a 950-cow operation just south of Watertown operated by partners Lloyd and Daphne Holterman, Tim Strobel and Jordan Matthews.

Lloyd Holterman said Van Os “came to Wisconsin at a really critical time. The whole dairy industry is all about animal care.”

“Everyone in the dairy community — farmers, processors, everybody who touches the product — has got to do better,” Daphne Holterman added. “We’ve always been concerned about our cows’ welfare, but it’s kind of been in the back of our minds. Now, it has moved to the forefront. We know we have to pay more attention, and we have to start telling people what we’re doing and why.”

Rosy-Lane Holsteins was the first Wisconsin farm Van Os visited and she was impressed by the partners’ purposeful approach to animal welfare and their willingness to try new approaches. So, she decided to set up her first collaborative research project there. One thing she wanted to study was the idea of showers in the milking parlor, the university said.

“I’ve never seen it done on a dairy before, and it intrigues me,” she explained.

Van Os is very familiar with the water-spray systems used to keep dairy cows cool, as she earned her doctorate in California studying how cows respond to sprinklers in holding pens and feeding areas. Those systems can be effective, she said, but they’re pretty inefficient.

“Cows move around, and they bunch up, so you waste water spraying where there are no cows, and you could be applying more spray to some animals than others,” she said.

Rosy-Lane’s solution was designed by Lloyd Holterman, Jordan Matthews and Dan Pauli, the farm’s plumbing contractor. “We had this wild idea: Let’s put showerheads over the stalls in the parlor,” Lloyd Holterman said. “We feed it with water that’s already been used to cool milk.”

This way, the water lands on cows rather than empty spaces, the spray is consistent from cow to cow and it’s targeted to optimize health and comfort — on the hips and back, away from udders (to reduce risk of mastitis) and away from faces, which is of particular interest to Van Os.

“Our research and other studies have found that cows don’t like to be sprayed on the face,” she said. “When we think about welfare, we’re thinking not just about biological benefits but also about whether they’re having a positive or negative emotional experience. If we can avoid spraying their faces, maybe it’s a more pleasant experience for them.”

Rosy-Lane’s partners think the system is effective and hope that Van Os can confirm that. She and her students are monitoring the cows’ heat load, recording things like body temperature, respiration rate, panting and how much time the cows spend lying down — a good indicator of cow comfort.

Van Os is also interested in a new practice in the calf barn. For years, Rosy-Lane’s newborns were housed individually, and it's common on Wisconsin farms to isolate calves to reduce the risk of disease. Recently, though, the farm’s calf team doubled the pen size and began housing newborns in pairs after hearing about research suggesting that isolating calves may hinder their ability to cope with changes they’ll encounter later on.

“It’s good for their social and cognitive development, and there are potential production gains,” Van Os said. “Evidence has shown that it helps reduce stress during weaning and improves weight gain after weaning.”

The cognitive development of calves is one of Van Os’s special interests. She plans to do a full-blown study on calf pairing in outdoor hutches at the University of Wisconsin's Arlington Agricultural Research Station.

“It’s very nice to work with a farm where the things we’re looking at were their idea,” she said. “It’s not some zany idea that we came up with in the university, and now we’re trying to get people to adopt it. We want to see how this works on a real operation that faces the same challenges that any non-research operation would face.”

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