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Freestalls for heifers? Yes!

Dan F. McFarland Published on 20 November 2012
Freestalls for heifers

Designed and managed properly, freestall shelters can be a good choice for growing dairy heifers.

The building footprint (square feet) and bedding requirement is less for a bedded-pack shelter for an equal number of animals.

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However, freestalls systems for heifers present some challenges, especially on “smaller” dairy farms.

First and foremost, stalls must be properly sized for the heifers using them.

There are five suggested freestall sizes for growing heifers from approximately 135 kilograms to pre-calving. In addition, the number and dimensions of stalls in a group determine the number and size of heifers within a group.

This can be a challenge for herds that calve more “seasonally” than “uniformly” throughout the year.

Common heifer freestall shelter layouts include two-row tail-to-tail, two-row head-to-head and three-row. Adjacent groups are separated with gates and the variation in weight between smallest and largest heifers within a group is approximately 90 kilograms.

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The two-row versions allow all heifers in the group (1:1 population) to eat and/or restrained at the same time. The three-row option is the more economical to build per stall but doesn’t not allow enough space for the entire group access to the fenceline at the same time.

The freestall dimensions and structure should allow heifers to enter, recline, rest, rise and exit the stall easily and comfortably.

Suggested freestall dimensions are based on heifer weight (in 90-kilogram increments) rather than age. Since smaller heifers will use larger stalls better than vice-versa, it is important to select stall sizes that accommodate heifers leaving rather than entering the group.

Producers are often tempted to place the neck rail to favour stall cleanliness rather than encourage use. This usually leads to stall use reluctance, excessive standing and heifers that prefer to rest in the alleys.

The stall bed needs to be both comfortable and durable. Resilient mattresses and “soft” mats are usually good stall bed choices.

Generously bedded earth-based stalls and sand are also good options but require more maintenance since heifers tend to “paw and dig” the stall base.

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Bedding is still necessary to improve comfort, encourage stall use and promote cleanliness. However, bedding addition is often more difficult (and less likely to get done as needed) since heifers continuously occupy the space.

Proper planning and gate placement allow the ability to confine heifers away from the stall rows being bedded. Regular removal of manure and soiled bedding from the stall surface is necessary to improve heifer cleanliness.

It is best to consult farm records when determining total stall numbers and sizes needed. Be sure to accurately recognize the farm’s typical age of calving rather than the calving age goal.

A difference of two to three months can significantly “back up” heifers in the system, leading to an improper heifer and stall size match within groups. The actual number of calvings and/or heifers born per month can vary significantly, so group sizes should be adjusted accordingly.

On some farms, a shelter incorporating both bedded pens and freestalls can provide flexibility over a total freestall system. For example, heifers from breeding age to pre-calving can get by with just two freestall sizes.

The bedded space planned for younger heifers can also occasionally be used to house older heifers when necessary.

Some producers and consultants argue that introducing heifers to freestalls early leads to better freestall acceptance as a lactating cow.

This is only true if heifers are exposed to freestalls that are comfortable and allow them to use them easily. Otherwise, the lessons they learn may be refusal or “reverse-resting.”

Designed and managed properly, freestall shelters can be a good fit on productive dairy farms. Accurate analysis of the farm’s replacement herd size and makeup are essential to get a good fit between heifer group size and the freestall available to them.  PD

For more information on freestall shelter layout alternatives and suggested freestall size, check out the Idea Plans available on the Penn State Agricultural & Biological Engineering website.

—Excerpts from Penn State Dairy Digest, April 2012

Dan McFarland

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