UW program to update building so cows can be happy

Wisconsin State Farmer
Nigel Cook, left, director of the Dairyland Initiative project, consults with Oconomowoc dairy farmer John Koepke about the design of a new building for cows that are close to giving birth.

OCONOMOWOC - The cows at Koepke Farms, a few miles north of Oconomowoc in southeastern Wisconsin, are a mellow bunch. They've obviously been treated well by John Koepke, a fifth-generation dairy farmer, and his employees.

And yet Nigel Cook, a professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, sees these Holsteins as "Olympic athletes," with the speed-demon metabolism needed for phenomenal milk production.

Koepke's 350 Holsteins earned him and his relative-partners David, Jim, Kim and Alan the "Dairy Farm of the Year" award at World Dairy Expo in 2011.

Nonetheless, Koepke realizes that his buildings are old and crowded. Before he adds another hundred cows or more, he is consulting with Cook, an expert in scientific treatment of dairy cows, which, Cook says, is sensible, humane and profitable all at once.

Cook, who became fascinated with cows and farms while growing up in England, insists that barns must be tailored to cows, and that ignoring basic principles and data can lead to costly mistakes. Just the day before this visit, a troubleshooting mission to a costly new dairy had proven his point. "We would rather talk about the pros and cons of the options in advance, rather than come in when it's too late and suggest expensive, stopgap solutions to avoidable problems."

The fundamentals of cow welfare rest in their evolutionary status as herd animals. Cows are comfortable doing the same thing at once, so feed bunks should be large enough to allow a group to chow down in unison. Changes in the group should be minimized, especially during the vulnerable weeks before cows give birth, to avoid the stress needed to establish a new pecking order.

A dry cow facility at Badger Pride Dairy in Valders, WI followed Dairyland Initiative principles and was a big success says farm owner Matthew Berge.

So is the goal a happy cow? Yes, Cook says. Happy cows have what they need, and avoid situations that are practically guaranteed to stress them out.

As Cook and Koepke confer at the farm in mid-April, Koepke quickly profiles his operation: where the cows live at different stages of life, how manure is managed, where his fields are located, what he hopes for the new barn, and where it can be placed.

Since 2010, Cook has directed the UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine's Dairyland Initiative, which focuses on providing dairy producers the information they need to build better housing using sound scientific principles that Cook and his vet school colleague Kenneth Nordlund developed. "Buildings are one of the four rate-limiting factors for successful dairying, alongside genetics, nutrition and management," Cook says. A barn should allow the cows a comfortable, clean and spacious place to rest. And it must prevent overheating in summer.