Cow Comfort………..Count on It


Dairy farmers who want to know if their cows are comfortable and healthy may be able to answer that question by heading out to the barn and doing some simple counting.  When observing a group of cows at least three hours after they have finished eating we would expect to see sixty percent of those cows chewing their cuds.  On an individual basis, healthy and comfortable cows will spend eight to ten hours each day chewing their cud. 

For the non-farmers reading this, please know that a cud is a small ball of partially digested food that is returned from a cow’s rumen (one of four stomach compartments) to her mouth for additional processing. The additional chewing helps to break down fiber in her diet by increasing the surface area of forages and other roughages that are part of a cow’s diet.  The increased surface area allows for more effective digestion upon the cud’s return to another compartment of the cow’s stomach.  Cud chewing also causes the cow to produce an average of 26 gallons of saliva that contains about six pounds of sodium bicarbonate helping maintain the proper pH in the cow’s digestive system.

And now back to that counting.  Though it is a good idea, manually counting if a cow actually chews her food thirty to forty thousand times each day really is not practical.  However, modern technology has come up with a device a cow can wear around her neck and count every time a cow chews her food.  This device can also communicate with a computer to record that information. That data can be analyzed and deviations from normal for individual cows can be reported to the dairyman.  

Research has shown that the time cows spend chewing their cud can be affected by many factors.  For example, cows that are producing milk will spend about 42 more minutes per day chewing than cows that are not milking.  Cows experiencing metabolic diseases such as ketosis may chew their cuds significantly less than healthy cows.  Infections have also been shown to decrease the amount of time spent chewing.  The reports from electronic monitors can help a dairyman identify those cows requiring individual attention resulting in quicker detection and treatment.

These monitors may also be able to predict when a cow will give birth. Cows begin to experience reduced rates of cud chewing several days before giving birth, culminating in a reduction of almost fifty percent on the day of calving.  By monitoring cud chewing rates a dairyman may be able to better plan when to move a pregnant cow to a calving pen for individual attention.

Simply knowing how much time a cow spends chewing her cud can provide benefits for the cow and the dairyman.  The information gathered in these processes can lead to better management helping dairy farmers reach their goal of comfortable and healthy cows.