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A freestall reimagined

Published on 29 September 2021

Open space is an important feature of a lying environment to dairy cattle, as this allows them to more easily lie down and stand up and to adopt different lying postures.

However, more open lying areas make it more difficult to control where cows defecate and urinate. To reduce contamination of lying areas and improve cow cleanliness, many dairy farms use freestalls that index the lying areas with stall partitions and neck rails. This creates a dilemma for dairy farmers, as the very features that help keep the lying area clean reduce cow comfort in the stall. For this reason, researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) Dairy and Education Research Centre have, over the course of many studies, worked to develop solutions that seek to maintain a clean lying area while minimizing behavioural restriction for the cows.

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In one recent study at UBC, researchers investigated lying behaviour of 48 dairy cows (eight groups of six) under three different housing conditions: conventional freestalls, an open pack (created by removing all partitions and neck rails) and alternative stalls (a novel housing system composed of hanging partitions; see Figure 1).

The alternative stalls design

Using video, lying behaviour (i.e., head position and level of limb extension) and perching behaviour (i.e., standing with just the front feet in the stall) was recorded. Cows were housed under each housing condition for a one-week period, and stall cleanliness was scored as the total stall area that was soiled.

Cows spent more time lying down in the two less restrictive housing options (open pack and alternative freestalls) compared to a traditional freestall. Cows in the less restrictive housing options were also found to adopt more extended lying positions, such as lying with hind legs extended and with the neck curled back. In the less restrictive housing, larger cows (greater than 820 kilograms) showed reduced perching time, likely because these larger cows have difficulties fitting into freestalls. Perching is linked to increased lameness and hoof lesions in dairy cattle. Together, these findings indicate that more open lying areas provide for better cow comfort than a standard freestall, and that the alternative stalls tested in this study provide for a similar level of cow comfort as is provided by an open pack.

Unsurprisingly, traditional freestalls were found to have improved stall cleanliness compared to the open pack and alternative freestalls. However, the alternative freestalls had improved cleanliness over the open pack, suggesting that this novel design could offer improvements to cow comfort while helping to keep stalls clean.

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The researchers concluded that an alternative stalls design can provide the cow comfort benefits of an open pack but with improvements in stall cleanliness. The alternative design tested in this study was completed as a proof of concept and is not commercially available, but the hope is that this research will help inform the development of new barn designs that improve cow comfort and work well for the farmers who care for them. end mark

For further information, contact Marina (Nina) von Keyserlingk. Email Marina (Nina) von Keyserlingk or email Dan Weary.

References omitted but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

—Excerpts from UBC Research Reports, July 2021

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