Dairy Cows Need to Allocate Time

Dairy Cows need to allocate time to do what they do naturally for optimum health, well being and milk production.

Given a choice, a dairy cow naturally puts herself on a strict budget when it comes to how much time she spends on various activities over 24 hours. When she has to spend more time than she would normally budget for one activity, she loses time spent on another, which can ultimately hurt your farm's bottom line.

A freestall-housed dairy cow has five key activities. She needs time each day for milking, feeding, standing in the alley, which includes drinking water, standing in a stall and lying in a stall. Dairy researchers call these activities a cow's behavioural time budget. Time out of the pen milking, stall base type and lameness can alter her time budgets with negative consequences for her health, well-being and milk production.

University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers studied the amount of time 205 cows in 16 Wisconsin freestall barns spent in various behaviours. Dr. Arturo Gomez and Dr. Nigel Cook used video surveillance to determine the relationships of the time spent by cows in different daily activities. As well as noting time spent in each of the five key activities, the researchers also recorded the number of times cows would lie down-called lying bouts-and determined the average duration of each lying bout.

Of the 16 barns studied, eight used rubber-crumb-filled mattresses with a small amount of organic bedding, while the other eight used sand bedding. Cows in the study produced an average of 42 kg of milk. They were scored as non-lame, slightly lame or moderately lame. None of the cows was severely lame.


When it comes to milking, cows have no control over the time required. In the study, milking time averaged 2.7 hours per day, with a range of 0.5 to 6.0 hours. This included time spent in the holding area and moving from pens to the parlour and back.

The size of individual milking groups significantly influenced a cow's daily milking time. Lame cows tend to be in the last third of a group milked, increasing the time they spend in holding area. The result is a vicious circle-more time spent waiting to be milked is associated with increased lameness prevalence.

Several specialists currently recommend two hours a day as the maximum milking time for a cow. In the Wisconsin study, there was no difference in daily milking time between herds milked two times a day and herds milked three times a day. Typically, 3X milking requires more of a cow's daily time than 2X milking.

Time required for milking activities reduced the time cows had for feeding, lying and standing in the alley. Milking system and barn designs need to minimize the time required for cows to walk to the parlour, wait in the holding area, actually get milked and return to their pen.

Other research suggests significantly lame cows milked 2X a day produce 1.6 litres more than lame cows milked 3X a day. This is probably the result of allowing the cow more resting time and reducing the foot stress from walking to the parlour and waiting to be milked.


Milk production is directly linked to feeding time. Cows averaged 4.3 hours feeding in the Wisconsin study. Lameness reduced eating time: non-lame cows ate for 4.5 hours; slightly lame cows for 4.15 hours; and moderately lame cows 3.79 hours. Cows spending more time milking spent less time feeding.

First-lactation heifers spent about 25 more minutes eating compared with cows in their third or later lactation. Other researchers have found first-lactation heifers have a slower feeding rate and take more meals in a day than older cows.

Standing in alleys

Standing in alleys averaged 2.5 hours per day. This time included moving between feeding and resting areas, socializing and drinking. Actual time drinking appeared to take only five to seven minutes per day.

During periods of heat stress, cows often increase standing time standing in alleys near fans to cool off. The Wisconsin study was completed when daily temperatures averaged less than 18.3 degrees Celsius.

Non-lame cows had an average standing time of 2.37 hours, while slightly lame and moderately lame animals stood for 1.94 and 1.82 hours respectively. Gomez and Cook theorized reduced time standing for lame cows resulted from either trying to avoid aggressive, dominant cows or shifting their standing location to the stalls from alleys.

Standing in stalls

Cows had a median time of 2.0 hours standing in stalls. They spent less time standing in stalls when higher pen-stocking density limited stall access. This suggested cows value stall occupancy as a resource.

Older cows stood longer in the stalls than first-calf heifers. This probably resulted from heifers spending more time feeding and experiencing fewer foot problems than older cows.

At 2.69 hours, cows stood much longer in mattress stalls compared with 1.46 hours standing in sand stalls. Other researchers have offered two different theories for longer standing times on mattresses. Some have suggested cows simply prefer to stand on mattresses instead of the concrete alleys, while other researchers have theorized this behaviour results from the animals having greater difficulty rising from and lying on mattresses compared with sand bedding.

Standing time in mattress barns increased with lameness. The authors theorized this may be caused by the cushion, traction and support sand bedding offers during the rising and lying movements of lame cows in comparison to the flat, firm surface of a mattress.

Lying in the stall

The cows studied averaged 11.9 hours lying down. The 25 per cent of cows with the least amount of resting time averaged 10.6 hours, while the 25 per cent of cows resting the most spent 13.5 hours in this activity each day.

On average, cows had 12.9 lying bouts in a day, averaging 1.2 hours duration. A few active cows-one cow was observed lying down 35 times in a day-had a lot of lying bouts and raised the study's average frequency. The median number lying bouts for the cows was 11.0.

Lameness reduced the number of times cows laid down during a day. Non-lame cows had 13.23 lying bouts compared with 12.85 for the slightly lame and 10.91 for the moderately lame animals. Cows in sand-bedded barns averaged 12.66 hours of lying compared with 11.50 hours for cows in mattress barns.

Moderately lame cows in sand barns showed no significant difference in lying time compared to non-lame cows. However, lameness did affect lying time in mattresses barns. Non-lame cows averaged 12.07 hours lying, while moderately lame cows had 10.83 hours lying time.

Cows in mattress barns changed positions more often than cows in sand barns. In mattress barns, cows had more lying bouts of shorter duration compared with cows in the sand barns. A greater proportion of lame cows in sand barns had longer lying times than cows in the mattress barns.

Points to ponder

Lameness significantly affected the time budgets of cows in the study. Lame cows spent less time eating, less time standing in alleys and laid down less often.

Stall base type influenced resting behaviour. Cows on mattresses had a greater number of resting periods of shorter duration compared with cows in sand-bedded barns, and lame cows stood longer in mattress stalls.

When various factors challenge a cow's time budget, the primary outcome is increased lameness. The Wisconsin study suggests a dairy cow's natural behavioural time budget has to be considered in freestall facility design and management.

Source: Gomez A. and Cook, N. B. 2010. Time budgets of lactating dairy cattle in commercial freestall herds. J Dairy Sci. 93:5772-5781

Table 1: Average, median, minimum, lower and upper quartile and maximum cow activities during a day
Activity Average Median Minimum Q25 Q75 Maximum
Time milking (hours/d)
Time feeding (hours/d)
Time in alley incl drinking (h/d)
Time standing in stall (hours/d)
Time lying (hours/day)
Lying bouts per day
Ave. lying bout duration (hours)

This article first appeared in the November 2011 Ruminations column of the Milk producer magazine.

For more information:
Toll Free: 1-877-424-1300
E-mail: ag.info.omafra@ontario.ca