This research compared three wood-chip out-wintering pad (OWP; an unsheltered OWP; a sheltered OWP (both with a concrete feed apron); and an unsheltered OWP with silage provided directly on top of the wood-chip bedding (self-feed OWP)) designs and cubicle housing with regard to dairy cow performance during the pre-partum period, and for 8 weeks post partum. Data were compared during 2 years. In Year 1, the unsheltered (space allowance = 12 m2 per cow) and sheltered (6 m2 per cow) OWPs were compared with cubicle housing (n = 49 cows per treatment). In Year 2, all three OWP designs (12 m2 per cow) were compared with cubicle housing (n = 24 cows per treatment, split into two replicates). Animals were dried off and assigned to treatment in the autumn, and remained there until calving in spring. Subsequently, they were managed at pasture during lactation. Outcome measures for analysis during the pre-partum period were feed intake, live weight, body condition score (BCS), heat production and heat loss, and post-partum were live weight, BCS, milk yield and milk composition. In Year 1, all cows had a similar live weight, but both pre-partum and at calving cows on the unsheltered OWP had a lower BCS than cows in cubicles (P < 0.05). However, in Year 2, there were no differences in either live weight or BCS. In Year 1, cows in the unsheltered OWP produced less heat than in cubicles (P < 0.05), but in Year 2, there was no treatment effect. In both years, cows in unsheltered OWPs lost more heat than cows in the sheltered OWP (P < 0.001). Treatment had no effect on milk composition either year. However, in Year 2, cows in the self-feed OWP had higher milk yields than the other treatments (P < 0.05). The lower BCS and heat production values in unsheltered treatments during Year 1 were probably because of higher rainfall and wind-speed values of that year. However, in both years, live weight in all treatments increased pre partum, and BCS did not decrease, indicating that unsheltered cows did not need to mobilise body reserves. Thus, OWPs could be a suitable pre-partum alternative to cubicle housing for dry dairy cows with regard to some aspects of dairy cow productive performance. However, further research should be carried out to investigate longer-term effects.
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