Lactating cows prefer temperatures below about 20-21°C. To cope with warm weather, they use a variety of strategies to maintain normal body temperature, including standing in shade, drinking more water and spending more time around water (especially if there is no shade), increasing their sweating and breathing rate, and reducing feed intake. When this is insufficient to keep their body temperature below 39.3°C, they exhibit symptoms of clinical heat stress, such as panting and drooling, and their welfare, health, and milk production can be severely affected.
Cows with high production, Friesian genetics or dark coats are more susceptible to heat stress – lower-producing cows and Jerseys may be comfortable until about 25°C. High air temperature, humidity, solar radiation, and low air movement increase the risk.
A distinct decline in milk yield means that the cows have not been able to stay cool; this may not be observed until two days after the hot weather. Night-time cooling can help reduce the negative effects of heat load on production, but it does not reduce the welfare impact on the cows during the day.
In the summer of 2021 the Waikato experienced more than 105 days when humidity and temperature created conditions that were too hot for cows. There are, on average, 6-8 hours a day in summer that are hot enough to impact milk production, and another 4-5 hours a day which are too warm for cow comfort. The estimated impact on milk production is 6 kg MS per cow over summer, or $12,000 for a 300-cow herd at $6.80/kg MS.
When thinking about how to reduce the impact of heat, there are three categories to consider:
1. Reduce the heat from the sun, e.g. provide shade and also cooling reflective surfaces such as yards and cowshed roofs.
2. Reduce the internal heat load – that’s a whole lot of smaller things, like making sure they have plenty of water, allowing extra space on the yard, shifting ‘hot’ feed to cooler hours of the day, and limiting walking during the heat.
3. Finally, remove the heat. Options here are sprinklers, misters and fans, that pull the heat off the cow through evaporation.
Ideally, farms should be set up so that cows can access shade and water whenever they want it. But that is easier said than done. Over the next ten years, we will be expected to have comprehensive mitigation plans and probably a lot more shade available. But, as a starting point for the next 1-2 years, we will be expected to know how many hours our cows might be too hot and make the most of the resources and management options already available to us.
Check out DairyNZ podcast episode 17 Heat stress strategies with Owl Farm – where we share some of our experiences.
In 2022 we planted 88 shade trees across the farm as part of our journey to offer more shade in future years. A planting map can be found below..
Strategies at Owl Farm
Check and manage water flow and quality
Lactating cows can drink more than 100 litres/cow/day and will drink between two to six times per day. Most cows drink soon after being milked, which is why we often see troughs running low or dry straight after milking. If cows cannot drink when they want to, their daily water intake will be reduced, even if they could have drunk it all later. Water intake is directly related to milk production, partly because water intake regulates feed intake. Ensure flow rates to troughs are fast enough that the troughs never run dry. Work on 14 litres/hour/cow the trough needs to serve. Herds larger than 400 cows need two troughs in the paddock, but any herd will benefit from extra troughs.
Install extra water troughs in the races
Rule of thumb: if troughs cause cow flow issues in the paddock or in the race, too many cows are thirsty, and more troughs are required. Install troughs where cows are already spaced out, rather than where they already congregate.
Use sprinklers on the yard
Cows cannot sweat much so they have limited capacity for evaporative cooling off their skin. Spraying them with water works like artificial sweat – the water droplets absorb heat from the cow’s skin, then either evaporate or run off, taking the heat with them. To be efficient, the droplets need to be big enough to wet the cow to her skin. Fans or wind can be used to shift the humid air away on humid days when evaporation is slower. Higher flow rates may also be used provided the water drips off the sides of the cow rather than running onto the udder.
In New Zealand studies, cooling with sprinklers for 10-90 minutes before afternoon milking reduced respiration rate by 60% and reduced body temperature for at least four hours after milking. Because sprinklers are so effective at cooling, cows don’t need them for long periods when the Temperature Humidity Index (THI) is lower than 69, which is typically about 24°C. Cows that were under sprinklers for 90 minutes when THI was less than 69 showed signs of hypothermia (Kendall et al. 2007).
Alter milking times
Changing milking times can achieve multiple outcomes, depending on your system. Reducing the number of milkings in the hot afternoons can reduce heat-generating exercise for the cows and heat generated in the yard (if not using effective cooling systems). Milker comfort can be increased by milking before lunch or later in the evening.
Plan for shade when allocating feed
Cows who have access to shade for 90 minutes before afternoon milking in New Zealand reduced respiration rate by 30% and lowered body temperature by 0.3°C compared to cows without shade (Kendall et al. 2007). The body temperature remained lower for 2-4 h after milking.
Cows use shade to reduce the heat they’re absorbing from the environment. Shade trees reduce solar radiation by >50% and the ambient temperature can be up to 10°C cooler under trees in summer. In New Zealand studies, cows start using shade from 20°C, and cows with access to shade had lower body temperatures, lower breathing rates and higher milk production.
Contrary to opinion, providing shade does not result in animals spending less time grazing. Cows provided with shade actually spend the same or more time grazing per day than those without shade, and can have increased dry matter intake. Providing shade for as many animals as possible will help prevent large groups gathering under too few trees, which leads to high nutrient loading, soil compaction and pasture loss. For a 300 cow herd, that would be about seven mature oaks, or 60 mature poplars, or a 36m x 36m shade structure. If there is less than 4-5 m2 of shade per cow, there will be competition for the space and some cows will miss out.
In New Zealand, where solar radiation levels are high, shade is likely a more important resource to cows than water cooling. However, cooling with water is efficient if cows are showing signs of being too hot (e.g., panting, drooling) on warm days, and in particular after a long walk to milking. Compared to shade alone, cooling with water spray reduces body temperature, respiration rate and air temperature more efficiently. So bringing the herd in for cooling is a good option when there isn’t enough shade available.
The earliest indicator of heat stress is increased breathing rate. Ideally, observe 10 cows on a warm summer afternoon. Get your eye in – watch the flank. Set a timer for 10 seconds. Count full breaths. Less than 7 is good. 10 or more is indicating heat stress. To practice counting breathing rates have a go watching this video