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Barn design can impact cow health and production

Curt Bossuyt Published on 21 February 2011

The world today seems to be moving at an increasingly rapid pace. Agriculture has seen more challenging times to remain profitable and sustainable. This pressure can affect our decisions when designing, building or modifying dairy facilities that can influence cow comfort.

Providing adequate cow comfort has a direct impact on milk production, health, reproduction, longevity and profitability. This article will focus on some of the key areas including stall design, bedding, overcrowding and flooring.



Let’s put this more into perspective. An average adult male requires approximately 1,800 to 2,400 calories per day for maintenance of life. An elite athlete under intense training requires up to 12,000 calories per day. A cow producing 45 kilograms of milk requires more than 40,000 calories per day.

The modern dairy cow deserves recognition and respect, as she is working considerably harder than any prized athlete. We must do our job in meeting her needs with nutrition, management and the work environment we subject her to 24/7.

Cow comfort can be described as freedom from fear, pain, hunger, thirst, injury/death. This applies across all ages of livestock and not just milking cows. This is certainly not a new concept.

Time budget
The one thing we can be certain of is that there are only 24 hours in a day. With this is mind, we have to put the cow’s time to best use.

Recent research has focused on looking at a cow’s “time budget” to get a better idea of how the cow spends time throughout the day. The key behaviours measured are: lying time, eating, drinking, milking, alley and standing in a stall.


The goal is to maximize resting and eating time for a more profitable cow. The other activities take her away from these, such as headlock up time, standing time in holding pens, 2x vs. 3x milking, travel distance to parlour, and stall usage.

Time budget for elite cows vs. average cows

This can be seen in Table 1, where time budgets were compared from elite high-producing cows to average cows.

A failure to achieve adequate rest can result in an increase in lameness, which has significant impacts on milk production and reproduction. Collick et. al. reported that herds with increased lameness had:

  • Increased days to conception by 14 days
  • Increased breedings/conception from 1.72 to 2.14
  • Increased cull rate from 5.1 to 15.7 percent

Bedding amount and type can dramatically affect stall usage and total lying time. Inadequate bedding reduces lying time, which increases standing time in alleys and stalls, causing increased lameness.

Sand is often referred to as the best bedding overall, but may be difficult to manage in cold climates. Regardless of using sand, straw, sawdust or other material, the key is in the amount provided in the stalls.


Copious amounts should be added to stalls on a regular basis, with daily cleaning to remove soiled bedding. Heavily bedded stalls (minimum 10 kg) can often overcome some stall design issues that would normally be more of an issue.

It is important to point out that mattresses are not a substitute for bedding. They may allow for some reduction in bedding, but must still have ample bedding to provide adequate comfort and to keep stalls dry.

Time spent lying and the number of lying bouts increased significantly with the amount of bedding on mattresses from bare to 7.5 kg sawdust. Field observations show cows can develop hock abrasions while on mattresses if bedding is inadequate.

Stall design
There have been great improvements in recent years in the design of stalls to provide more comfort to the cow. Cow behaviour studies that have included video monitoring have been powerful learning tools.

This has resulted in new stall designs and dimensions targeting improved cow comfort. Again, the goal is to increase stall usage and lying time.

Another key area to pay attention to is overcrowding and its potential negative impact on cow comfort. There are many opinions on the subject as to how much overcrowding is acceptable.

Acceptable overcrowding will depend on the individual operation and will be affected by things like barn design (four vs. six row), bunk space per cow, square footage per cow, average size of cow, number of times milked, holding pen time, etc. Overcrowding can result in:

  • Altered feeding behaviour
  • Greater aggression and displacements at feedbunk
  • Reduced resting time
  • Increased idle standing in alleys
  • Decreased rumination
  • Less milk
  • Lower milk fat percentage
  • Increased lameness
  • First-calf and lame cows most affected
  • Lower pregnancy rates

Floor surface and square foot per cow can stress the cow if not adequate. Cows must be allowed to walk in a normal manner without fear of slipping. This fear can impair reproduction and increase lameness and injury. Grooving, surfacing, sand or rubber mats are all useful in improving traction.

Floors can also have too much traction, as is sometimes the case with new concrete. Sharp edges or excessive rough surfaces should be avoided, as they can increase sole wear or cause white line separation.

Areas to focus on if considering rubber flooring are the holding pen, milk parlour and feed bunk area.

Total square foot per cow is important when evaluating barns for comfort. Cows require enough floor space to move about freely without congested areas.

A barn can have enough bunk space and stalls but may still lack alley and crossover space. Pay attention to alley widths, number of crossovers, width of crossovers and space around water troughs.

Lighting and air quality
An area we must not overlook is the cow’s workspace. Is the lighting and air quality adequate? A cow’s requirement for lighting is both time and intensity. A rule of thumb is to be bright enough to read a newspaper and for 16 hours light with eight hours dark.

Air quality factors to consider are: odour, gases, humidity, wind speed, replacement rate, drafting and temperature regulation. Summer ventilation has come a long way in recent years with the advent of tunnel ventilation systems. Cold-weather ventilation often remains challenging with low air turnover and high humidity conditions.

There needs to be a constant awareness of the impact cow comfort has on profitable performance of a dairy herd. A lack of adequate comfort stresses the animal with negative performance implications as well as reduced profitability.

You need to put the right feed in front of the cow and the right cow in front of the feed. A cow living in discomfort is not the “right” cow in front of the feed and will not optimize the ration potential.

The challenge here is whether your barn meets the cow’s need for comfort to eliminate stress and allows her to reach her full potential.

After all, happy, healthy cows are more productive.  PD

References omitted due to space but are available upon request to .

Curt Bossuyt
Dairy Nutritionist
Landmark Feeds