It is now the new trend- you can pamper your dairy cow and get more milk with breaking a sweat.
From playing music to the cows, to pedicures and cool baths, farmers are now learning new tricks to make their cows happy. It is one of the best-kept secret of successful dairy farms.
This trendy twist in cattle rearing is replacing the smelly cow shed affair as farmers adopt a mood boosting lifestyle for their animals.
Farmers have now realised that other than having a superior breed — if they want livestock to produce optimally- they need to go an extra mile.
We have found that many top and successful farmers are now pampering their cows to an extent of letting them watch TV and sleep on clean and comfortable cow mattresses. In some countries, such as Israel, cows live in air-conditioned cow sheds.
What does this mean?
It means that a livestock farmer who gives his cow the bare minimum treatment – plain old grass and traditional cowshed – would only get the bare minimum from his dairy venture. There is now output evidence that shows that a happy cow equals a healthy cow which translates to more than double the milk output for dairy cows and super tender meat for beef cattle. And the milk produced by a happy cow is not only plentiful but also richer and creamier.
And not only for dairy farmers. The beef farmers are also saying that beef steers that are not stressed produce tender beef.
“Ask any veteran butcher and they will tell you that beef that is tough and tasteless is most likely from a stressed cow,” says Mike Musyoka who runs a butchery in Nairobi.
For Alex Ndung’u, who runs a dairy farm in Kabete, these mood boosters in his quarter acre farm are what distinguishes his milk production from the other farmers. Mr Ndung’u has more more than 20 Holstein-Friesian cows and he makes them listen to soothing classical music. On close observation, the animals look like they are having a blast, and they are lost in their own world but they are indeed relaxing.
During milking time, Mr Ndungu tells us as he sets up the milking equipment, the cows are usually relaxed if you play music to them.
“Before I discovered that music soothes them, milking time was akin to war time. The animal could kick the worker and he had to secure it with ropes. We realised that when the cow was stressed like that the milk output was distressingly low. Now I know that things like music calms the animal during milking. Since we discovered that, nowadays we do not need to fasten the animal with ropes during milking, we just play their favourite ballad and that’s it,” says Ndung’u, who is also a student at Strathmore University.
The results can now be seen and his father is happy with the new inventions. “We can get as much as 30 litres of milk per cow. Previously we did 10 litres. To achieve that maximum yield, we play them music; give them an occasional pedicure and a nice bath every day. This keeps them relaxed which trickles down to more milk,” says Ndung’u.
Though pampering of animals is still a new phenomenon in most farms in Kenya, it is the order of the day in many developed countries like Israel, Norway, Denmark and Australia which have taken pampering a notch higher having discovered that it leads to higher yields.
Cow comfort has become a key concern to dairy farmers, who have known for generations that contented cows give more milk. The traditional techniques for keeping cows happy aren’t complicated: Feed them well, keep the temperature comfortable and give them room to move around.
In Western countries, dairy farmers are turning to a new array of creative options. Besides music, some have installed water beds for their cows to rest on. Others hire animal chiropractors to give older cows a tuneup and correct minor issues in calves, all part of the effort to ensure maximum milk output.
In Kenya, Mr Simeon Songok the farm manager at Sigma Feeds, an expansive livestock farm in Ongata Rongai, says that they have embraced the new mood boosters for their animals. “We treat our cows well. We play them soothing music during milking which boosts their moods. Every day we also give them a shower 30 minutes before milking which makes them feel comfortable. Our place is very hot and doing that calms them. They also sleep on special mattresses and the cow shed is clean and air rated. Of course it costs more having all these luxuries, but it is a worthy investment,” he says.
Do the methods really work? There’s no sound scientific data to back up the claims, but dairy farmers say they can see the difference with their own eyes, as cows are giving more milk, the milk quality is improving, and the herds seem to be enjoying the indulgences.
At the ultra-modern Tassels Dairy Farm in Ruiru, the cows are allowed to watch TV, listen to music and they get a nice scrub every day. The supervisor Peterson Njoroge say they have seen major improvement after this royal treatment. “Our cows watch TV, they listen to music and we give them a nice scrub every day. And the place they sleep in is clean and covered in plastic mattress which is warm and comfortable,” says Njoroge.
Tassels Farm is embracing the grooming practices from Denmark and Israel. “To minimise contamination on our farms, we are in the process of automating everything. Robots will be doing most of the milking parlour processes. The project which has cost us Sh300 million is almost complete,” Njoroge says.
A veterinary doctor Dr Ambrose Kipyegon of University of Nairobi says giving the cow all these special treatment impacts on the overall production. “By giving the animals this tender care, it leads to the production of feel good hormones which in turns leads to more production of milk,” says Kipyegon. He adds that a cow that is not at peak health and is stressed will not produce as much milk as a comfortable relaxed cow.
And what’s the scientific explanation behind this special treatment? Dr Joseph Othieno a veterinary doctor who works for Kenya Tsetse and Trypanosomiasis Eradication Council (KENTTEC) explain the science deeper: “Scientific evidence shows that milk production is controlled by hormones –oxytocin and adrenalin. These two hormones work antagonistically for more milk production. Oxytocin production has to be higher and adrenalin lower for higher milk production. When the cow is relaxed it produces more oxytocin which leads to milk letdown,” Othieno explains. But when the animal is stressed the vet says it produces more adrenalin (fight- flight) which impedes the milk production. So niceties like the music, the TV, the grooming and the mattresses all help to calm the animal triggering feel good hormones.
A study by Cornell University shows that dairy cows using the DeLaval Swinging Cow Brush (a modern cow wash machine) register higher milk production and lower clinical mastitis cases. The study compared different groups of cows housed in pens using the grooming device to the similar reference groups kept in identical pens under the exact same conditions but without the cow wash. The research team concluded that second lactation cows using the cow wash showed a significant and increasing difference in daily milk production of up to +1kg per day. It was concluded that cows using the cow wash machine were 34 per cent less likely to suffer from clinical mastitis, a painful condition which can reduce milk yields.
In western countries, dairy farmers commonly adjust air, temperature and lighting to keep cows happy. Some have also installed large rotating brushes that gently scratch the cows’ backs and massage their faces and shoulders, Marcia Endres, a University of Minnesota Extension dairy scientist told a farming magazine in the US.
And some dairy producers have employed even more unusual techniques, even in absence of scientific data that justifies their use.
Dairy experts agree the concept is entertaining. They also agree that dairy farmers need to be careful about introducing new techniques — music, water beds, chiropractic care — into a herd that’s already relatively comfortable.
“Cows are creatures of habit. They like things to stay the same,” Endres said. “So, many producers like to not introduce too much change. Cows just don’t like a lot of weird things happening to them.”
But even with such sentiments Muchina Nyaga struts his zero-grazing unit checking on how his cows are faring.
He stands at an empty shed, bends and lifts a cow mattress to check beneath. Thereafter, he asks one of his workers to remove the mattress, clean it and air in the sun.
Nyaga, 33, keeps 13 Friesian cows on 15 acres, one that he owns and the rest he leases for fodder growing, in Mwireri village, Olkalou Constituency, Nyandarua County.
Of the animals, six are lactating cows, one is in-calf, three are calves and three are heifers. He gets an average of 240 litres of milk per day from his cows, a feat he attributes to good farming practices. An R&B tune can be heard playing in the sheds where the lactating cows are. “We play music from 10am to 4pm. We prefer Soul and R&B music because it encourages the animals to rest. We have trained them that whenever the music is on, they understand it’s time to rest thus the animals are able to chew cud, which is one of the processes in milk production,” he explains.
Each of cows also has a mattress to ensure they are comfortable.
“A cow that sleeps on the floor cannot produce the desired amount of milk,” explains Nyaga, an economics graduate of Mt Kenya University.
When it comes to feeding, he says he offers the cows feeds twice a day, at 7am and 5pm.
“We offer the cows 15kg of silage made of oat and maize germ. In the evening we feed them with a mixture of 10kg of silage and 5kg of hay and sometimes we alternate hay made of oat with that made of lucerne,” he explains.
For every lactating cow, they add a ration of high yield dairy meal, where by for every 7kg of milk produced per day, they feed 1kg of dairy meal.
Farmers tell us that motion pictures give the cows a unique form of entertainment such that when they now turn to listen to music during milking, they have relaxed their bodies and minds. Through television, they can also watch movies. The best movies should be customised to contain things like a cow giving much milk that it pours out of the bucket, calves suckling, milk being transported to factories and milk equipment that they are used to seeing.
A study done in 2001 showed the tempo of music affects milk production in dairy cows. In this study, slow tempo music, like Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, increased milk production by 3 percent. In contrast, harsher, faster music had no effect on milk production. The theory behind this physiologic response is that faster music increases the cow’s stress level, and increased stress has been repeatedly shown to negatively impact milk production. Other studies have shown that yelling at cows and aggressive herding dogs decrease milk production, according to Dr. Anna O’Brien.
“I am not sure why there is not more research on the cow-music-milk production relationship,” said Dr. Leanne Alworth of the University of Georgia’s School of Veterinary Medicine.
What we know is that dairy farmers have become experts in cow comfort, from barn design to climate control engineering to keep cows as content as possible. But not all the attempts to sooth cows are quite so high tech. It may sound silly, but some farmers swear by playing relaxing tunes for their herd for maximum milk results. But can you really slow jam your way to higher milk production? Turns out that yes, you just might.
We now know that many dairies in the U.S. play either country or Spanish-language music in parlors. This choice is highly dependent on milking employee preferences.
Other experts say that from a practical standpoint, perhaps the use of music in the milking parlor is just an easy way to drown out mechanical noise and provide the animals with a consistent environmental element.
“Music is a calming sound to the cows,” says Spadgenske, the Minnesota dairy farmer. “They get used to that. If they’re calm and content, then obviously milk production is going to be better. There are different ways you can reach that, and I think that music happens to be one of those ways.”