Ten Tips to Help Dairy Cows Beat the Heat

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It can be downright hazardous when dairy cows face high temperatures and humidity. Dr. Meggan Hain, the veterinarian at Penn Vet's Marshak Dairy at New Bolton Center, warns of the threats such conditions pose to these animals.
Not only does heat stress decrease their appetite, but it can slash their milk production by as much as 10 pounds daily. But that's not the only concern. Their immune systems weaken, increasing the likelihood of chronic illnesses. It can potentially intensify the effects of these illnesses. Beyond these immediate impacts, heat stress may silently compromise reproduction and reduce overall milk output.
Cows have a unique digestive system called the rumen, which allows them to break down fibrous meals efficiently. However, this system can be their Achilles' heel in hot conditions. Within the rumen, the beneficial microflora that process cellulose generate considerable heat. Imagine it as though cows have an internal furnace operating constantly. And here's a catch: the more milk a cow produces, the more it consumes. It increases the cow's vulnerability to heat stress.
To counter these challenges, Doctor Hain provides ten essential tips to help cattle combat heat stress.

Ensure enough hydration

Dairy cows require a lot of water. It's worth noting that their needs change depending on the weather and the amount of milk they produce. For instance, a dairy cow churning out 80 pounds of milk typically consumes around 25 gallons of water. This is true for a 1500-pound cow on a moderately cool day at 40°F. Yet, when the mercury rises to 80°F, her water intake jumps to 33 gallons daily. And for those cows producing even higher milk volumes? They'll need even more water.
Hence, cows churning out more milk need more water. To accommodate every cow's hydration needs, they should have at least 3 inches of space at the water trough in their pen/. This strategic spacing cuts down on competition, ensuring every cow can easily access and drink clean water.

Provide access to shady areas

Shade plays a crucial role in a cow's comfort and productivity. Research indicates that when cows are in shady areas, there's an uptick in milk production by 10% to 20% compared to those left in direct sunlight. While this shading proves indispensable for high-yield, lactating cows, it's just as crucial for other herd members. Heifers, dry cows roaming the pasture, and those who are unwell or less mobile should not be overlooked. Ensuring they have access to shaded areas can make a difference in their well-being and productivity.

Install fans

Fans are a top choice in addressing heat. Opt for those spanning between 36 to 48 inches wide. Position them approximately 8 feet above the ground. Make sure they are roughly 20 feet apart from one another. For consistent air circulation, angle the fans downward between 15-25°. This arrangement ensures every nook and cranny of the barn gets adequate airflow.

Use sprinklers

In many commercial barns, pairing sprinklers over the feed alley with fans has proven to be the most effective method for heat reduction. This setup capitalizes on evaporation to cool the cows. The sprinklers should be positioned approximately 8 feet above the ground, right below the fans. Aim the water over the backs of the cows using a 180° spray pattern and a 10 PSI water flow.   A recommended usage pattern is activating the sprinklers for 3 minutes every 15-minute interval. However, a word of caution: avoid placing soakers directly over the beds. Refrain from installing soakers over the bedding areas. Doing so can cause excess moisture, leading to environmental mastitis issues.

Consider misters

In regions with a drier climate, many farms adopt misters with fan systems positioned over the bedding areas. These misters release a delicate spray specially engineered to evaporate water quickly, keeping the bedding dry. As this mist evaporates, it marginally cools down the surrounding air. Remember, this works best in environments with little humidity and adequate airflow. They are less effective in humid or enclosed spaces since they can unintentionally raise the heat index.

Make nutritional adjustments

Modifying their diet is one effective way to combat heat stress in cows. Did you know that you can actually increase the calorie density of the feed while lowering the heat produced by fermentation? This is possible by cutting back on concentrates and increasing fats. However, it's essential to ensure that fats don't make up more than 6.5% of the dry matter percentage. Opting for higher-quality forages or trimming down on forage content can further minimize fermentation heat. Cows may prefer concentrates on hot days. It's okay to maintain a balanced diet of roughage to avoid digestive problems. To enhance cow's heat tolerance, integrate certain minerals into the diet. Such minerals include chromium and potassium (at 1% of dry matter).

Pay attention to fresh cows

Summer poses specific challenges for fresh cows – those that have recently given birth. These cows become notably vulnerable to conditions like ketosis, mastitis, and metritis. One reason? Their food intake tends to decline during these hot months, compromising their immune defenses.
Keep a close eye on these cows to discover problems early and take action. Proactively addressing these health problems can stop them from developing into serious complications. Even a 12-hour delay might mean the difference between a cow making a full recovery and a heartbreaking loss when the summer heat is at its worst.

Do not overcrowd the holding pen

Surprisingly, one of the hottest places on a dairy farm might be the holding pen. Why? Cows are crowded into the area, which limits their capacity to expel body heat. Each cow requires a space of around 36 to 48 square feet for effective heat dispersion. Instead of ushering an entire pen to the holding area, moving them in smaller batches is smarter. In addition to cutting down on their wait time, this avoids crowding. To deal with the extreme heat, the holding pen must be equipped with fans and sprinklers. Additionally, giving cows access to water right after milking can improve their hydration and support maintaining milk production during the warmer months.

Avoid unnecessary stressful activities

On particularly hot days, avoid tasks that further burden the cattle. Activities such as sorting, moving, or transporting can increase their stress. Additionally, giving them immunizations can put even more stress on their system. It's a fine line; even a tiny bit more stress could be the difference between a cow managing heat stress and falling ill. Remember that this also applies to dry cows because extreme stress may result in miscarriage.

Combine cooling cells and tunnel ventilation

For those managing smaller farms, a blend of cooling cells and tunnel ventilation proves highly efficient. This dynamic duo can lead to a temperature drop of as much as 10 degrees. Even though it stands out as one of the premier methods to cool dairy barns, it might not be practical for expansive, large-scale spaces.

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