Basic principles of dairy cattle well-being

Written by
Janice Chow

Did you know that about 1 billion people depend upon dairy for their livelihoods? And that about 6 billion people across the world regularly consume dairy products?1This is all possible due to the amazing dairy cow!


Dairy cows make an invaluable contribution to the world – they help feed and nourish billions of people through the milk they produce every day. So ensuring the health and well-being of dairy cows is not only the right thing to do, but it is also vitally important. In fact, dairy professionals know that prioritizing cattle well-being also contributes to productivity.


Six basic principles of dairy cattle well-being can be applied to any facility, including smallholdings.


1. Ensure a good start

Help give a calf a good start in life by ensuring that it gets colostrum equal to ten percent of its body weight within the first six hours of life. Colostrum provide calves with passive immunity, helping protect it from infectious diseases until its own immune system develops.


2. Safeguard cattle health 

Looking after the health of the herd is the cornerstone to cattle well-being and the success of any dairy farm. A herd health plan should include an effective preventive strategy, parasite control and management for lameness, as well as metabolic and reproductive health. This plan needs to be farm-specific and reviewed regularly in consultation with a veterinarian. Remember to complement this with a good biosecurity strategy that is diligently implemented throughout the facilities – this can make a big difference when it comes to preventing diseases and controlling outbreaks.


3. Provide shelter and comfortable living spaces

Regardless of husbandry model, all dairy cattle need access to shelter and comfort. For cattle kept outside, provide shelter and shade for protection in extreme weather conditions. While indoor housing should be well-ventilated and stalls big enough for each cow to easily stand up, lay down and move around freely. Remember to also consider natural daylight and to provide clean bedding.


4. Create a safe environment

Keep the environment clean and clear from obstructions reduces the risk of cattle slipping or falling. For example, pathways should be designed for cows, rather than for humans. If the gradient of the floor is too steep or too smooth it can increase the risk of accidents, particularly around the calving period when metabolic changes predispose for lameness.   

Lameness in dairy cows is probably the single biggest cause of poor well-being and economic loss to the dairy industry globally. So all dairy farms should have good hoof health procedures to diagnose, prevent and treat lameness.


5. Access to nutrition and water

Feeding dairy cattle is a significant investment. The quality and quantity of feed are the most important factors in determining milk production and growth and have a major influence on well-being. The optimal diet will depend on the breed of the cow, age, stage of lactation cycle, exercise and the environment. A systematic and adaptable approach to feeding, supported with regular and accurate body condition scoring helps dairy professionals to ensure each cow is receiving the nutrition it needs.

Like humans, cows need water to regulate body temperature, aid digestion and absorb nutrients and milk production so easy access to clean water is important. Place water drinkers centrally and make sure that they are easy to access.


6. Handle cows calmly

Cows are intelligent creatures. Not only do they respond better to calm and positive experiences, they remember them too. Gentle movements and talking to the cows offer reassurance and promotes bonding with handlers.

Understanding how to direct their movement by using the animal’s natural flight zone and removing unfamiliar obstacles, can help to establish closer bond between the cattle and people.

Boys feeding cows in a barn

Advancing dairy cattle well-being does not have to be complicated or costly. One just needs to know where to start. Any well-being improvement that benefits the animals, benefits the farm, and benefits all of us.

This blog is based on Bayer Animal Health’s Dairy Cattle Well-Being Basic Principles brochure.


Written by
Janice Chow