EVALUATION OF FREESTALLS FOR COMFORT AND PRODUCTIVITY
EVALUATION OF FREESTALLS FOR COMFORT AND PRODUCTIVITY

Dr. Allen Young
USU Extension Dairy Specialist

    Freestalls are a good way to maximize comfort and productivity in a dairy herd IF they are designed properly. Unfortunately, I have seen so many poorly designed and maintained stalls lately that a review of proper design of freestalls seems to be in order.

    The intent of a freestall is to give the cow a clean, comfortable place to lie down, chew her cud, and rest between milkings. I have heard it said that a cow should be doing four things during the day: eating, drinking, being milked, and lying down. If she is not doing one of those four things, then maximum milk production is not occurring.

    One way to determine if something is wrong with the freestalls is to check the number of cows not using them or only standing part-way into a stall. If they are not lying down or fully within the stall, then there is a problem. It is common to visit a dairy and look down the row of freestalls and see many empty stalls or the majority of cows standing with only their front feet in the stalls. This should be a signal that something is not right.

    Lately, I have seen a very large number of freestalls that are not designed properly for size (including slope), lunge space, and bedding. I would like to review each of these.

Size

    Generally, stalls should be 44 - 54 inches wide (I prefer 45 - 48 inches) and the length should be approximately 8 feet from the rear curb to the front of the stall. This is assuming only forward lunge space for the cow and could be shortened a little if adequate side lunge space is provided at the front of the stall. The slope should be 3-5 inches upward in the direction that the cow lies (cows prefer to face slightly uphill). The top of the stall partition should be about 42-48 inches from the stall base.

Lunge Space

    My biggest pet peeve is that many of the freestalls I have seen lately do not allow for adequate lunge space. A cow needs an open area of approximately 24 inches by 24 inches around its head so that it can rock forward to stand up. If cows can�t do this easily, they either tend to not use the stalls or to remain in them all day because it is too hard to get out. Either way can lose you money. Watch your cows closely when they get up from the freestall. They should rock forward, the rear legs come up under them, and then the front legs. They shouldn�t have to struggle to do this (feet and leg problems are another story). I have seen stalls that are so bad that cows have to get up on their front legs, like a horse, before they can clear the partition enough to get up on all four legs. They also end up closer to the front of the stall than they should. Proper slope will help keep them correctly placed back in the stall. The newest designs of freestalls have the front of the stall completely open (no concrete wall) and not hindered with any hardware used to hang the partitions.

Bedding

    Cows need a clean, soft cushion on which to lie. If the base of the freestall looks like �craters of the moon,� the slope is lower at the front of the stall, has very little bedding, or is so hard that a jackhammer couldn�t crack it, then it is time to do some reconditioning and/or add more bedding. Sand is the gold standard for bedding, and I endorse its use; however, sand can play havoc with manure systems and cleaning equipment. If you are using any type of flush system and a lagoon, be aware that you will have to deal with the sand again at some future time. Add a sand trap to the system to help out. Organic bedding such as straw also works well, but make sure you have plenty in the stalls. If you can kneel in the stall and not bruise your knees or come up wet, then you are on the right track; if not, bed more often.

    Cow comfort is very important if you are to realize maximum productivity from our modern dairy cows. Anything you can do to make them more content is worth more money to you.
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Source: Guideline for Planning Dairy Freestall Barns, The Dairy Practices Council, NRAES, 1995.