Farm Advice: Getting a handle on how heat impacts your cows

Dairy NZ offers some tips on helping prevent heat stress in your herd

We’ve all heard people say that some days are too hot for cows, but have you ever considered how much the heat is impacting them?

Cows’ stoic behaviour means their discomfort is not as obvious to us

Historically, understanding heat stress has been based on noticeably reduced milk production, but now we understand that cows experience discomfort before production drops.

Cows’ stoic behaviour means their discomfort is not as obvious to us. Things such as increased standing, aggression around the trough, and increased breathing rates are easy to miss when we do not spend our whole day in the paddock with them.

Discomfort has also increased in cows in line with the increased milk production we’ve managed over recent times. Increased milk production means cows have more metabolic heat to manage and, therefore, require more support to get through summer in comfort.

To understand the effect of heat stress on your farm, I would like you to do two easy things:

  • Count how many breaths your best cow for production takes in 10 seconds
  • Research how many hours of risk your cows might face

Watch your best cow breathing

You might still feel sceptical about the impact of heat on your herd and you might be right. The best way to find out is to get out and look at your cows between 1pm and 3pm on a summer day.

Respiration is the earliest and easiest indicator we have on how a cow is coping, and it only costs a stroll through the paddock. High production increases susceptibility, so use your best cow rather than your smallest heifer.

Once you’ve selected a cow, count how many breaths she takes in 10 seconds. The normal rate of breathing is 26–40 breaths per minute, or four to seven breaths in 10 seconds. If she takes more than 10 breaths, she’s experiencing enough heat stress to reduce her feed intake and affect milk production.

How many hours of risk?

The hours of heat that will affect milk production differs regionally, ranging from two hours per day around Gore to 11 hours per day around Whangarei.

However, the hours that affect their comfort levels are an additional four to six hours per day in every region. If cows are exposed to all that heat, the estimated impact on milk production ranges from 1.5kgMS to 7kgMS per cow between December and February.

Many farms already have systems that reduce the risk for at least some of that time. But it’s good to assess what you’re already doing in each of those risk hours and whether you can apply some of the tips below. 

Tips to help keep cows cool over summer

No money required

  • Milk earlier in the morning
  • Bring in early for sprinkler in the afternoon
  • Set breaks so the herd can access two troughs
  • Let the herd acess shade somewhereelse during the day
  • Shift more feed to cooler hours of the day

Fast bang for buck

  • Install a trough in race
  • Clean troughs
  • Install sprinklers and/or fans
  • Put shade over the yards
  • Improve flow rates or add troughs

For more information, visit dairynz.co.nz/heatstress.

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