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Freestall housing design: Don't trust any 'one'

Dean Throndsen for Progressive Dairyman Published on 29 February 2016
Building a barn that enables your best cows to thrive

Who has all the right solutions for building a new barn? Not one single person. Not the dairyman. Not the builder. Not the dealer that sells the stabling or ventilation or waterers or scrapers.

For many dairy producers, the opportunity to build a new dairy housing facility or complete a major renovation might come just once in a lifetime. The need to get it right is critical for continued success.



So why are there major cow-comfort flaws in recently completed projects? Because one person (or sometimes a few) tried to give all of the answers.

As a distributor of dairy bedding solutions for more than 20 years, I have been called in time and time again to help producers solve problems related to cow stress or comfort.

When I am called in to observe cows in a new barn or recently completed renovation, I often find design choices that negatively affect cow comfort and increase stress.

Building to you average cowWhen I’ve identified the stressors, I’ll ask the dairyman how he made decisions about different cow comfort aspects. Often, he will say, “The architect recommended it,” or “The builder told me to do it that way.”

And if I’m talking to the builder or the architect, he often says, “I just did what the farmer told me to do.”


When this type of blame game begins, it means that both the dairyman and the builder have ignored research on cow comfort and stress, haven’t looked at how cows and their needs have changed, avoided looking at common errors in design, not done a good job of reviewing products or simply didn’t ask multiple experts, visit other farms, attend educational sessions or failed to play the devil’s advocate on choices made prior to the project.

As a dairyman, if you don’t commit to using your existing experience and being open to taking a critical look at the new information available, you might end up missing an opportunity to have a state-of-the-art facility that will provide for your family, and maybe the next generation, for the next 20 years.

Remember: The customer isn’t always right, but neither is the expert

You definitely know how to run your existing barn the best. You work there every day. But when you’re looking to build a new facility or dramatically change the old one, you have to set aside your own past experiences – and you can’t put 100 percent of your trust in any one outside person.

The most successful projects that I have been involved in are the projects where the dairy producer has done years of research and used multiple methods to gather evidence about barn planning and technologies that maximize cow comfort and improve human efficiencies.

The best barns come from tough questions

The best barns are built when producers do the following:

  • Plan ahead: Successful projects are usually a result of at least three years of solid planning and critical thinking.

  • Research everything: Make pro-and-con lists, develop a budget, read articles, attend training sessions, go to conferences and shows, and create a short list of your top-choice solutions.

  • Visit other farms: Commit to touring at least a dozen barns with the technologies on the short list. (Travel if you must.) You need to observe products in an actual barn. You need to visit barns with different layouts and flow schemes to see how cows and humans interact.

  • Choose a cow comfort and design expert for the build: Choose a barn builder or architect that has experience in explaining the pros and cons of dairy barn construction. If the builder can’t do that, make sure he is willing to bring in an independent cow comfort expert to help weigh options.

  • Work with the design expert/builder to create a comfort system: Using the research and the short list, and the knowledge observed in the field, the dairyman and his team then should use critical thinking to work the technologies and plans into a system designed around cow comfort and stress reduction.

    Everyone on the team should be comfortable asking tough questions.

Building to your best cow

Not just cow comfort, but best cow comfort

One of my favourite sayings is, “Build the barn for the best cow in your herd.” If you build the barn for the average cow, you are telling your cows by sheer physical restraints that it is OK to be average. If your best cows are too big for narrow stalls, but you were able to squeeze 10 more stalls in the barn, is it really worth it?


The message sent to the best cow trying to fit in a narrow stall is that she won’t be able to perform at her best because she can’t be truly comfortable and stress-free. She can’t stretch out. She may be at risk for getting a teat stepped on. She is up against her neighbour.

By building to your average cow, you will increase stress and pull down your top producers, preventing them from ever reaching their full potential. By building to your best cow, you are inviting your whole herd to grow into top-producing, low-stress, healthy animals.

 So as you plan for a building project, don’t place your trust in any one single person; seek input and options from several experts and other experienced dairy producers to design a facility that will empower your best cows to reach their maximum potential.  PD

Dean Throndsen is president and CEO of Advanced Comfort Technology and DCC Waterbeds. Email Dean Throndsen.

PHOTO 1: Building a barn that enables your best cows to thrive is the result of intensive planning, research and expert input.

PHOTO 2: By building to your average cow, you will increase stress and pull down your top producers, preventing them from ever reaching their full potential.

PHOTO 3: By building to your best cow, you are inviting your whole herd to grow into top-producing, low-stress, healthy animals. Photos provided by Dean Throndsen.