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J Dairy Sci. 2011 Jul;94(7):3376-86. doi: 10.3168/jds.2010-3901.

Using water to cool cattle: behavioral and physiological changes associated with voluntary use of cow showers.

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Department of Animal Science, University of California, Davis 95616, USA.


Water is commonly used to cool cattle in summer either at milking or over the feed bunk, but little research has examined how dairy cows voluntarily use water separate from these locations. The objectives were to describe how and when dairy cattle voluntarily used an overhead water source separate from other resources, such as feed, and how use of this water affected behavioral and physiological indicators of heat stress. Half of the 24 nonlactating cattle tested had access to a "cow shower" composed of 2 shower heads activated by a pressure-sensitive floor. All animals were individually housed to prevent competition for access to the shower. Over 5 d in summer (air temperature=25.3±3.3°C, mean ± standard deviation), cattle spent 3.0±2.1 h/24h in the shower, but considerable variability existed between animals (individual daily values ranged from 0.0 to 8.2 h/24h). A portion of this variation can be explained by weather; shower use increased by 0.3h for every 1°C increase in ambient temperature. Cows preferentially used the shower during the daytime, with 89±12% of the time spent in the shower between 1000 and 1900 h. Respiration rate and skin temperature did not differ between treatments [53 vs. 61 breaths/min and 35.0 vs. 35.4°C in shower and control cows, respectively; standard error of the difference (SED)=5.6 breaths/min and 0.49°C]. In contrast, body temperature of cows provided with a shower was 0.2°C lower than control cows in the evening (i.e., 1800 to 2100h; SED=0.11°C). Cows with access to a shower spent half as much time near the water trough than control animals, and this pattern became more pronounced as the temperature-humidity index increased. In addition, cattle showed other behavioral changes to increasing heat load; they spent less time lying when heat load index increased, but the time spent lying, feeding, and standing without feeding did not differ between treatments. Cows had higher respiration rate, skin temperature, and body temperature as heat load index increased, regardless of treatment. These data suggest that cattle, when given the opportunity, will make considerable use of a shower to reduce heat load, but that individuals are highly variable in their use of this resource. The variability between cows indicates that the behavioral response to water is likely an important, but poorly understood, consideration in the design of sprinkler systems used for summer cooling.

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