A leading UK veterinarian has told AgriLand that a commitment to improving cow welfare must be a key priority for Irish dairy farmers, if they wish to improve milk output efficiently beyond 2015.

Cheshire-based Owen Atkinson added: “It’s all about providing a better environment for cows, particularly during those periods of the year when animals are confined.

“International research has shown that management constraints, rather than overall feed intakes, are the key factors that come into play when it comes to determining whether a cow yields 7,500 litres or 10,000 litres. This assumes that most Holstein Friesian cows are comparable in terms of their genetic merit.

“Shed design should be such that each cow within a milking group has free access to feed at all times. Long waiting times, incurred in terms of accessing feed, will have a very negative effect on daily milk yields.”

He continued: “Cubicle design and comfort are also critically important. Cows that are lying down will convert feed into milk more readily. Studies have shown that for every extra hour that a cow lies at rest in a cubicle, she will produce an additional litre of milk.

“The reality is that a cow’s metabolic system works more efficiently when lying than when standing up. So if cows can be encouraged to rest for an additional three hours per day, they should produce an additional three litres of milk per day, from the same level of feed intake. And at current milk prices this works into real money.”

Atkinson went on to point out that cows at grass split their day equally between resting and grazing.

“It is this scenario that farmers should strive to replicate when their cows are indoors,” he stressed.

“We know that cows, if given the option, will prefer to eat little and often, rather than gorge on large volumes of feed at irregular intervals. This latter situation can arise if there is insufficient feed bunk space available to allow all of the cows within a milking group to feed at the same time. Bullying can also arise in such circumstances.”

Atkinson concluded: “It is also crucially important to provide cows with a sure footing when indoors. If this is not achieved, losses due to falls will become a key factor. Cows are alos less likely to demonstrate strong heats under such circumstances.”