Researchers say happiness turns dairy cows into cash cows

Carrie Antlfinger
Associated Press
Young cows stand in a barn at Mystic Valley Dairy in Sauk City, WI.

SAUK CITY (AP) - Dairy farmers, take note: The key to turning your dairy cow into a cash cow is udder happiness.

Give her a bigger stall, increase air circulation and provide some shelter to prevent overheating.

That's according to a University of Wisconsin initiative that focuses on making dairy cows happier so they provide more milk.

"I think it's really important that we give them the spa treatment," said Nigel Cook, who has directed the Dairyland Initiative at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's School of Veterinary Medicine since 2010.

Cook and his team visit farms to give advice about myriad issues, including behavior and easing cow stress. They also provide workshops and have created a website to share advice with farmers worldwide.

Cook said major concerns include leg pain or lameness, especially among cows that stand for long periods without a comfortable resting place.

Cows lie down on a bed of sand in their stalls at Mystic Valley Dairy in Sauk City, WI. The farm's owner Mitch Breunig has spent over $100,000 to improve his farm to make his cows happier, including making his barn and stalls bigger and adding fans and other air circulation equipment.

"It impacts the way she rests, the way she milks, the way she eats, her ability to reproduce and ultimately her ability to stay on the farm," he said.

One solution? Take her to the beach — or at least the farm equivalent.

"The deep soft bedding of sand creates an environment where cows can rest half the day," Cook said.

Other recommendations include adding sprinklers and feeding cows at the same time — since herd animals prefer to do things together. And while you're at it, regroup cows less around birthing time to decrease stressors associated with establishing a hierarchy.

Mitch Breunig stands among his 400 cows at Mystic Valley Dairy in Sauk City, WI. The key to more milk is reducing stress on the animals via comfort measures such as making stalls bigger and adding fans and other air circulation equipment.

It's advice Mitch Breunig has been closely following with his 400 cows at Mystic Valley Dairy in Sauk City, about 25 miles northwest of Madison. He has spent over $100,000 in improvements aimed at making his cows happier and says it's been worth it.

He has even added an automatic brush in his barn that constantly cleans dust off his cows.

"If you take away their stress, they actually produce more milk, and the other thing that is actually interesting is they do it by eating less feed," Breunig said.

Breunig has seen milk production increase from about 13 gallons of milk a day per cow to 15 gallons. He said his cows also have fewer injuries and live about a year longer.