Active Dairy Management: Walking the Pens

Although I am a very strong proponent in the use of records to help make dairy management decisions, sometimes we just need to walk the pens. And, if your spouse bought you an activity tracker, like mine did, you’ll also benefit by getting in all those steps.

It’s not that you don’t trust those to do their job, it’s just that another set of eyes can see the things that others might overlook. Besides, the cows can tell you an awful lot. In this article, we’ll focus on the lactating cow pens and the kinds of observations that you can make. Whether it is the dairy owner, manager, herdsman or veterinarian, a regular walk through the pens can tell you two things: (1) Things are looking really good and I am going to tell the employees about it, or, (2) There are a couple things we need to tweak to improve cow comfort or well-being, Dry Matter Intake (DMI), employee safety, etc., and I am going to tell the employees about it.

The following list of observations is not exhaustive and some items may not be important to some farms or could be measured in a different way, such as by newer technologies. There may be other items that you might want to include that are not listed.

Pen Stocking Rate

Is this lactating pen really less than 120% stocking capacity for headlocks or stalls? Is “everyone” eating together? Lying down together? Is the fresh pen stocked less than 100% and 30 inches of bunk space per cow? Are the cows distributed throughout the pen or bunk or are they bunching due to heat or flies?

Cow Observations

Hygiene – If you looked across the pen, would you see many cows with manure above the pastern?

Teat dip – If cows have returned from the parlor – do they all have a visible coating of teat dip?

Lameness – if you are walking through the pen, are there any cows that are obviously lame that need immediate attention?

Body condition scores (BCS) – Are there any really thin cows in the pen? Does this pen of cows meet the suggested BCS target and range? (Penn State Extension)

Manure - Manure observations can indicate some things about a cow’s ability to digest the nutrients offered her. Although there are manure scoring systems, making the observations is the first step. The optimal consistency for dairy manure is porridgelike and in a pile. If it is runny, bubbly, or splashy, has lots of whole corn particles or is too sticky or dry, there are nutritional or digestive issues going on.

Rumination – If cows are resting, more than 60% should be chewing their cud (AmaralPhillips). Less than that may indicate digestive issues.


While the cows are eating or in the parlor, you should be able to make important stall observations. Are the backs of the stalls dry? Dirty? The picture below shows stalls that are dug out at the back and are wet. The stalls should be well-bedded to the back curb and dry. If making your observations after cows had their fill of feed, they should be resting (about 14 hours a day). How are the cows using the stalls? Are they standing? Lying? The stalls should be well-occupied and the cows should be using them appropriately after eating. The picture below shows some unusable stalls because of a broken water pipe. That would increase stocking density because the cows would not use these stalls.


While the cows are away at the parlor, most farms clean the alleyways. Observations on cleanliness as well as manure build-up areas can be made quickly. Bunk Recommendations are that feed be available for 21 hours per day to maximize DMI and that about 5 percent refusals remain (although that may vary depending on the quality of the TMR). Feeding behavior of the cows can also be noted (Aggressively eating? Sorting?). Are there any broken headlocks? Obstructions to the feedbunk?

Records of Pen Observations

A clipboard and a pen is old-school but can still be useful. A number of years ago, Dr. Don Niles, co-owner of Dairy Dreams in Wisconsin, created a simple record-keeping system for making daily pen walks. It would be easy to adapt this to what a dairy wanted to record or even create a smartphone-based recording system.

Seeing the cows in their pens and making pen observations takes time but can find the things that employees are doing well and can find those things that can help improve health, performance, and comfort of the cows.