Resources | Projects
(organic fact sheets and more!)
Research and Studies
Trainings | Field Days
Funds for Farmers
Yes! I want to hear about the latest MOSES events & resources. Please add me to your mailing list!
An Ounce of Prevention: Mitigating Stress in Organic Dairy Cows
This article was first printed in the September - October 2005 issue of the Organic Broadcaster, published by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service.
Farmers who have transitioned from conventional to organic production find that it is not just about changing practices-it's also about being open to new ideas, examining long held assumptions and, very often, changing your entire perspective on farming. Dairy farmer, Jerry Wolf, of Eau Galle, WI made the comment at a MOSES training that, for him, making the switch to organic was "90% mental." One of the most deeply held beliefs that organic farmers struggle against is industrial agriculture's mechanistic worldview. The idea that the world, a farm, a cow, and even a person is like a machine, isolated and self-contained, made up of parts that can be fixed or replaced as needed. This has resulted in a partial, inadequate, and damaging approach to agricultural problems, as those "fixes" have had far-reaching unintended consequences. By contrast, organic agriculture stems from the belief that a farm, a cow, a person belongs to and is comprised of living, dynamic, interconnected systems organic, organ, organism, organization. Organic farmers learn to take a holistic approach to the health of their cows. However, even among dairy farmers who recognize that the health of the soil is intimately connected to the quality of the milk, the issue of stress is sometimes overlooked.
Many of the problems that occur in individual dairy cows-illness and infection, poor milk production, behavioral problems while being handled, injury and death during transport-are caused by underlying stress. A farmer with conventional solutions at his disposal might attempt to address these difficulties in a piecemeal way, with after-the-fact interventions (antibiotics, hormones, electric cattle prods). But an organic farmer needs to be looking at the larger picture in order to prevent stress from occurring in the first place. While no farmer can have complete control of a farm or any organic system, reducing stress is possible. Learning more about how cows interact with one another and their environment, and what impact those interactions may have on their health, is crucial for making sound decisions in organic management.
According to Dr. Richard Holliday, DVM, there are three broad categories of stress:
Stresses within these categories often overlap; moreover, they
are cumulative-a cow that is already compromised by inadequate
nutrition will be more adversely affected by aggressive handling.
Any animal under enough stress will have lower immune function
and be more susceptible to disease. In order to keep stress to
an acceptable level, an organic farmer needs to be aware of how
stress might be compounded. Also, because animals vary in their
ability to accommodate stress, they must be assessed individually
as well as holistically. The dairy farmer who is attentive, compassionate
and humane in his treatment of cows will be able to address potential
problems early on because he knows the animals, as individuals
and as a herd.
Besides meeting the physical needs of the cows, grazing on pasture also allows them to interact with one another within the herd structure. Cattle are social animals that need the opportunity for unrestrained interaction. According to Tamiko Thomas, staff specialist of the Farm Animals and Sustainable Agriculture section of The Humane Society of the United States, the social nature and herd instinct of dairy cows means that isolation from herd mates is stressful. Thomas cites one study in which isolated cows showed signs of acute stress-"their heart rates were higher and they gave less milk than controls due to reduced oxytocin, the hormone responsible for letdown, and increased milk retention." Allowing dairy cows to fill their ecological and social niche is vital to preventing stress, maintaining health, and sustaining production levels.
Of course, if a cow's life consisted solely of grazing in the pasture it would probably be fairly stress free. But dairy cows also fill an economic niche, which brings them into more direct contact with humans and puts them into more potentially stressful situations. Dairy cows are handled throughout their lives and lactating cows are handled extensively. Human frustration in dealing with animals, even on an organic farm, can lead to abusive handling.
There is ample evidence that inappropriate handling and ill treatment by humans induces fear in dairy cows, raises stress levels, creates restless behavior and reduces milk yield. It is important to refrain from this course of action and instead to work with a cow's natural behavior patterns.
Dan McFarland, Ag Extension Agent at Penn State Cooperative Extension, York County writes in "Effective Low Stress Cow Movement in and Around Milking Centers" that dividing cows into groups, according to production, stage of lactation and/or age, allows for better management when moving cows to and from milking parlor. An entire group should be moved at once through clear traffic lanes, 12-16 ft. wide for a group less than 150, with a minimum of turns, direction changes and cross-traffic. A well- drained, non-skid surface will provide confident footing. The holding area should allow 12-15 sq. ft. per cow to prevent stress from overcrowding and overheating. This is especially a concern in the summer. At ambient temperatures above 77 degrees, cows will use energy to cool themselves down and begin diverting water from milk production to heat dissipation, which can reduce yield by 25%. Well-maintained waterers, which supply at least 3-5 gallons per minute; shaded and well-ventilated holding, traffic and exit areas; and a sprinkler-and-fan cooling system will help lower ambient temperature.
McFarland continues "cows should be given the opportunity to enter the milking parlor voluntarily, at their own rate." Yelling, loud whistles, and excessive prodding may create extreme reticence in the animals and/or establish a pattern that needs to be repeated at each milking. A crowd gate keeps the space available to cows relatively constant and encourages voluntary movement from holding area, through the funnel area and into the milking parlor. The entry wall to the parlor might be removed to encourage flow. Transitional lighting can help cows get used to the bright lights in the milking stations-be aware of how shadows might spook animals. A bad experience entering the parlor for the first time can have lasting effects.
The groundbreaking work of Dr. Temple Grandin, Associate Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, has provided useful insight into how animals perceive their environment. She surmised that because animals do not have language they store memories as "images or as short bits of audio tapes." After a bad experience in the milk parlor or with an abusive farm worker wearing a yellow jacket, the cow will store a "fear memory" associated with this place or that color or those sounds and will become restless whenever she encounters them. Even young calves will retain memories of negative experiences (and, unfortunately, abuse of dairy calves is not uncommon). Those fear memories, Grandin says, are permanent. Therefore, it is better to avoid establishing fear memories in dairy cows by handling them gently from their very first days. Calm handling, along with proper facility design and clear paths to facilitate movement, eliminates the need for aggressive measures.
Transportation of dairy cows, while often necessary, is inherently stressful. Animals that are already carrying a heavy stress load because of injury, lameness, weakness or illness suffer severe stress in transport, especially if the truck is overheated and overcrowded. These animals are more likely to fall, becoming non-ambulatory. In 2003, the distressing footage of a Holstein from Washington State suffering from the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) and the public outcry that followed prompted the USDA to ban non-ambulatory cattle from the food supply. In addition to the issues of food safety and humane treatment, stress can produce hormones that can adversely affect the quality of the meat in slaughter animals. Regardless of the reason for transport, even when animals are fit, special care should be taken to minimize stress. Experienced and humane handlers, clear pathways, ramps with good footing and set at angles no greater than 25 degrees, well-maintained transportation vehicles with solid sides and partitions are crucial. It is also important to maintain appropriate stocking densities in order to ensure adequate ventilation and to avoid mixing animals of substantially different weights and ages (except for a lactating cow and her calf). Bedding for comfort and protection from extreme weather as well as a smooth, carefully driven route will make the drive itself more tolerable for the animals. Even dairy cows that are going to slaughter, including young bull calves, deserve to be treated with care and respect.
Because organic farmers have learned to see the complex interrelationships that must be nurtured in order to maintain or improve soil health, water quality, grasses and other vegetative resources, they are far more likely than their conventional counterparts to recognize and relieve stress in their dairy cows. A conventional producer, particularly those with a confinement operation, is encouraged by the industry to view his cow as milk-producing machine that must be pushed for maximum yield, injected with antibiotics and hormones when stress takes its toll, and then sold for meat at a relatively young age. An organic farmer cannot rely on quick fixes-and shouldn't have to. A dairy cow is not a machine. She is both part of the overall agro-ecosystem of the farm and an individual with particular genetics, health history, experiences and memories. Taking the time to get to know her and making an effort to prevent undue stress in her life will keep her healthy and productive for years to come.Return to TOP