Cow Care

It Starts With Great Cow Care

Animal Care Fact Sheet (pdf) “A first principle” among dairy farmers is that happy, contented cows give more milk — and better quality milk — than cows that are unhappy. So, much of what happens on Washington’s dairy farms — from the physical layout of the farm to the milking cycle, from meal planning to housing design, from bedding arrangements to veterinary care, from noise-control to barn ventilation — is designed for cow comfort. Normal practice for maximizing animal welfare on Washington’s dairy farms can be grouped into five essential categories:

  • Housing
  • Nutrition
  • Animal Health
  • Animal Handling, Movement and Transport
  • Farm Worker Education


A clean, comfortable and safe environment in which cows feel secure enhances the health and well-being of our animals. Cleanliness protects expectant mother cows and their calves from harmful bacteria and other risks, facilitating growth in the calf and recovery from calving for the cow.

A separate calving area allows for closer observation, provision of assistance in birthing and avoidance of injury to animals and farm workers. Calf hutches (described by one Washington dairy farmer as “the perfect little incubator”) allow young calves to grow in an individualized environment free from contagious illnesses that may be present in the herd as well as physical injury from adult cows; they also ensure proper nutrition for hungry calves.

Housing that is appropriate to local climatic conditions promotes health, growth and contentedness among our animals. Housing design emphasizes sufficient space for cows to move about and express normal behaviors while obtaining access to food, water and resting space without competition from their herd mates. Cows do much of their best milk-making when they are resting in a place where they feel comfortable and secure.

Washington dairy farms have moved increasingly to free-stall housing arrangements that allow individual cows to choose their preferred place to eat, drink or rest. To comfortably support the 1,500 pound weight of a resting cow, dairies make use of sand bedding, rubber mattresses and even waterbeds. These help to minimize injuries to knees and hocks when the cow lies down or stands up; they also keep her cleaner. To further reduce the chances of injury, flooring is designed and maintained to avoid slips and falls; non-skid and even cushioned surfaces provide more secure and comfortable walkways.

Adequate ventilation promotes good health among both animals and farm workers. Frequent removal of manure (two or more times per day) and changes of bedding materials promotes proper animal hygiene and positive udder health. Appropriate lighting and temperature control contribute to animal contentedness.

Cows are sensitive animals and stress reduces their milk-making efficiency. Routine schedules and the minimization of fear sources keep them in a positive mood. Some dairies have placed milking parlor machinery in basement compartments to minimize noise; others pipe in music to keep the animals calm. Cows are herd animals and derive their sense of security and status from their herd-mates; they stress out when separated from their sisters, for example when released into pastures or corrals alone. Herding dogs are trained to control cows by means of intimidating eye contact, rather than barking or biting.


A typical Washington cow will eat about 75 to 100 pounds of food and drink about 35 gallons of water each day. The food she eats — together with the water she drinks — provides her body with the energy and nutrients it needs to make milk. Ample food of the best quality is therefore essential to producing large quantities of the highest quality milk.

Washington dairy farmers work closely with certified animal nutritionists to develop dietary plans for their herds and to monitor the results. Human beings cannot digest complex fibers, but cows can. We domesticated cattle because their bodies can convert low-value fibrous foods (forage) into high-value protein and fat for human consumption. In Washington, forage consists of grass as pasture, silage or hay; or alfalfa as pasture, silage or hay; as well as whole corn plants. Together, these components constitute about 40% of a cow’s diet. An additional 5% to 15% of the diet consists of corn or barley grain to accelerate fiber digestion. The remaining 45% to 55% of a cow’s diet consists of by-products mostly derived from human food production processes. It is from this that cows get their well-deserved reputation among animal scientists as “one of nature’s great recyclers.”

Common by-products that are fed to cows include sugar beet pulp; cotton seeds; sweet corn residue; soybean and canola meals (left over from vegetable oil production); linseed and sunflower meals; corn distillers’ grain (left over from ethanol and liquor production); almond hulls; rice bran and rice hulls; wheat millrun (left over from flour production); culled potatoes; potato peelings; culled apples; apple pomace (left over from juice production); mint residue; and corn gluten (left over from the production of corn syrup). Every day, Washington’s cows eat about 5.4 million pounds of these products — products that would otherwise likely end up in landfills. Our cows thereby help to reduce the environmental impacts associated with food production for humans, while also reducing the costs of those foods by providing a market for food production waste — the cost of which would otherwise have to be borne by consumers when they buy those foods.

Cow’s diets are planned with reference to the National Research Council’s Nutrient Requirements for Dairy Cattle (2001) and other expert resources. The nutritional status of individual animals is evaluated through “body condition scoring,” a process that assigns values to animals on a scale ranging from thin to fat — as adjusted for breed, stage of development and lactation status. Diets are also adjusted on the basis of milk production volumes.

Animal Health

The health of dairy farm animals is maintained through a combination of preventive care programs and the rapid diagnosis and proper treatment of illness, when it appears. The foundation of animal health is the relationship among the dairy farmer, his or her animals and their veterinarian (the “valid veterinarian-client relationship,” as defined by the American Veterinary Medical Association). All dairy farms are expected to maintain a written, updated Herd Health Plan, developed in cooperation with its veterinarian. The Plan includes standards for the following:

  • Newborn Calf Health and Care
  • Disease Prevention and Management (including routine vaccinations)
  • Hoof Health
  • Udder Health
  • Non-ambulatory Animal Handling
  • Biosecurity Measures
  • Animal Mortality Management (including humane euthanasia protocols)
  • Emergency Contact Information

Medications are used only when necessary to reduce animal pain and to prevent or cure illnesses. As with humans, when dairy animals become sick they are sometimes treated with antibiotics. Because antibiotic residues can be passed into her milk, a cow undergoing antibiotic therapy is segregated from the herd in a hospital pen on the farm.

For her comfort, she continues to be milked but her milk is destroyed before it can enter the human or animal food chains. This process continues after antibiotic therapy has ended — during the so-called “withdrawal period,” when the medication has worked its way out of the cow’s system. Certification by her veterinarian that the animal is not shedding residues is required before the cow can rejoin the milking string.

A supplementary system of testing ensures that dangerous levels of antibiotic residues are not entering the human or animal food chains. Every drop of milk produced anywhere in the U.S. — including Washington — is repeatedly tested to ascertain its status for controlled substances such as antibiotics. This testing is performed at the farm; when the farm’s milk is picked up for transport to a processing plant; and again at the processing plant.

If the milk fails any of these tests, it and all milk with which it may have been comingled is destroyed before it can enter the human or animal food chains. The dairy farmer who was the source of the contaminated milk will be fined by an amount equal to the market value of the entire milk shipment — which can range as high as $20,000 (an amount sufficient to put many dairies out of business). The chances of getting caught by this array of tests is virtually 100%.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) then conducts back-up tests to ensure that the dairy industry is doing its job of protecting the nation’s milk supply.  It randomly selects tanker truck loads of milk arriving at processing plants for additional tests.  According to the 2014 Annual Report of the National Milk Drug Residue Database (published Feb. 12, 2015 – most recent figures available), of the nearly 3.7 million samples  tested over a one-year period only 0.0001% failed the tests.  All of this milk was destroyed before it could enter the human or animal food chains.

Special needs animals include those that are sick, lame or non-ambulatory. Herd Health Plans require treatment for these cows that protects them from other animals (including wild predators) and provides appropriate shelter and access to food and water. Medications may be used to manage pain. Humane euthanasia may be used to deal with chronically ill or injured animals or those experiencing pain that cannot be relieved.

Herd health plans are expected to include protocols for the timely and humane euthanizing of dairy animals. Euthanasia is to be performed by trained and competent animal handlers in a manner consistent with standards established by the American Association of Bovine Practitioners (Practical Euthanasia of Cattle pdf). Proper disposal of animal carcasses (burial, incineration or composting) promotes herd health and minimizes environmental impacts.

Animal Handling, Movement and Transport

Dairy farm animals must be handled, moved and transported in a manner that avoids unnecessary pain or distress. The key to appropriate animal handling is farm worker education. Proper training and re-training of employees ensures that animals are moved in a manner that results in less than 1% of cows falling as they go to or from the milking parlor (Grandin, 2007). Industry standards require that farm buildings and handling facilities, including vehicle trailers, are well maintained and free of objects that could cause injury. Loading equipment should have non-slip flooring.

Although statistically uncommon on Washington’s dairy farms, non-ambulatory (or “downer”) animals become unable to walk due to acute injury, attenuating illness or severe lameness. These animals are assessed for their recovery potential. Animals that are likely to recover are removed to an area of appropriate shelter with adequate access to bedding, food and water and with no risk of trampling by other animals. Non-ambulatory animals that cannot recover are dealt with under the Herd Health Plan’s humane euthanasia protocol. Non-ambulatory animals can be moved with the use of approved techniques and equipment (Handling of Crippled and Nonambulatory Livestock). Non-ambulatory animals are never to be pulled, dragged, pushed or otherwise moved via the direct application of force to the animal; doing so does not comply with industry standards and may constitute a violation of animal cruelty laws.

Some ambulatory animals become non-ambulatory during transport to slaughtering facilities. However, under federal law, non-ambulatory animals cannot be processed for entry into the human or animal food chains.

Farm Worker Education

Appropriate training and supervision of farm employees ensure that animal care and handling standards are being met. Written and verbal training in the employee’s native language helps farm workers to do the following:

  • Recognize and understand basic animal needs
  • Rapidly diagnose and treat animal illnesses or injuries
  • Handle, move and transport animals in a manner that minimizes animal distress and is safe for the animal and the caretaker
  • Perform humane euthanasia procedures competently
  • Understand and implement biosecurity measures

Great cow care isn’t just the right thing to do for the animals; it’s also good business practice for dairy farmers. It comes down to self-interest: happier cows make more and better milk; and more and better milk means bigger rewards for the dairy farmer. And Washington’s cows have made good on the investment of attention and support provided to them:

  • Washington is the 10th largest dairy producing state in the United States, producing over 5.901 billion pounds (685 million gallons) of milk in 2010.
  • Washington ranks 3rd in milk production per cow in the United States.  Washington cows produced an average of 23,510 pounds (2,727 gallons) of milk in 2010, vs. the U.S. national average of 21,149 pounds (2,452 gallons).