|Beneath the surface
with David Law
If you think us humans have been suffering in the midsummer heat, spare a thought for the cows.
By February, the heat from the New Zealand sun is so strong cows are very uncomfortable indeed. Their tongues are out by 9.30am; they are too hot to eat or drink, so they don’t. They stand in mobs, trying to escape the heat while inadvertently creating more heat by huddling together. They stand in one place, poo in one place, and attract more flies. It’s a grim sight.
However, in the several decades I spent dairy farming I discovered a few simple, no-or-low-cost adjustments farmers can make to their working day to ensure cows stay as comfortable as possible during the hottest weeks of the year – keeping milk production high as a result.
Under traditional twice-a-day milking models, cows are milked around 5am and are back in the paddock around 8am, missing the opportunity to graze dewy grass.
In the peak of summer, I would ask staff to milk at around 3am so the cows were back in the paddock by 5.30am-6am. By the time the real heat kicked in mid-morning, they’d had four hours grazing wet grass and were asleep with full stomachs.
Eating that high-moisture feed meant they didn’t need to go to the trough and were ahead for required water intake for the day.
On a hot summer’s day, silage made with young grass is as irresistible to cows as icecream and fruit salad is to humans – we’ll run to it! I used to keep the young silage especially for summer to give the cows a reason to eat, feeding it out around lunchtime. If you don’t have silage, chicory is a good alternative.
After feeding the silage, I would move the cows to a 500m-long paddock, planted north to south in trees – a designated shade paddock, not used for grazing. By lunchtime the sun was past the trees and the mob had full shade to enjoy for around an hour before milking.
Due to the early start, we’d milk cows at around 1pm-1.30pm so staff were finished work by 4pm and could have some cooling-down time of their own. Sprinklers at the shed provided some extra relief for hot cows.
Other tricks we used to up the cows’ water intake included mixing 1000L of water with feed in a mixer wagon. This stopped cows rushing to the trough to compete for water when they left the feed pad.
We also offered cows watered-down molasses in PK trailers in the race when they came up for milking. Molasses is instant energy and provided enough of a pick-me-up for hot cows to get up and feed.
Asking staff to make cow comfort a priority during this critical time and taking advantage of what Mother Nature has to offer could be the difference between your cows continuing to milk, or not.
The next challenge facing farmers is the possibility of facial eczema occurring on-farm. Facial eczema in cattle can be treated; we have treatments available that work very well to stop the progression of the disease. For more information, please contact me.
Summer can be a stressful time on farm, so I urge farmers to pick up the phone and call me if they have any questions whatsoever – we’re here to help.