When it comes to choosing their bed, your cows have a lot in common with Goldilocks. As surely as Goldilocks rejected the beds used by Papa Bear and Mama Bear, your cows will reject — or use begrudgingly — free-stalls that are too short, too narrow, or contain too hard of a bed.

Achieving cow comfort in free-stalls is a game of inches. And, if you want the cows to get comfy in their beds, you have to combine the right dimensions with good management.

“Ten to 15 years ago, our biggest concern with free-stalls was to get the cows to lie down. Now, we want them to lie down and be pristine,” says Dan McFarland, extension agricultural engineer at Penn State University. In order to accomplish that, you must give your cows the inches they need.

Listed below are the four most common mistakes made with free-stalls. Use this guide to help you avoid making the same mistakes.

Mistake #1 Mounting free-stall loops on horizontal pipe.

Why it happens: As people grow impatient to get the barn done, or cut cost, someone almost always suggests mounting the free-stall dividers on horizontal pipe or iron. After all, it would be a lot quicker than having to install a post for every single divider. The change would save time and money.

If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. When you mount the free-stall dividers on horizontal pipe, you block the cows’ forward lunge space (see photo above left). So, unless you’re going to make the stalls longer — in order to replace the forward lunge space that the horizontal pipe has blocked — you’ll have to use free-stall loops that allow for side lunging. Even then, you’re making a compromise, because  cows prefer to lunge forward, not sideways.

The goal: Mount every divider on a vertical post. You can mount free-stall dividers on both sides of the post in head-to-head stalls, but you want one post for each set of dividers.

The other important point to remember when hanging the free-stall dividers is to mount them at the correct height — 44 to 48 inches above the rear curb. If you plan to use mechanical grooming devices in the stalls, adequate space must be allowed between the bottom of the loop and the bedding, says John Smith, extension dairy specialist at Kansas State University. Otherwise you won’t have enough clearance to groom the stalls mechanically without damaging the loops. 

Mistake #2 Installing imposing brisket boards.

Why it happens: If you want to make sure the cow stops and lies where she is supposed to, it’s tempting to install a large brisket board. But, using a 2-by-10 or a 2-by-12 for a brisket board is definitely overkill, says Brian Perkins, technical services specialist with Monsanto Dairy Business, Canandaigua, N.Y. Remember, “brisket boards should be a suggestion to the cow, not a rule.”

The goal:  The role of the brisket board is to help position the cow as she lies down. It should be placed 66 to 70 inches from the rear curb of the stall in sand-bedded stalls. The top of the brisket board should be no more than 4 inches above the top of the rear curb.

Mistake #3 Deciding stall dimensions without knowing the size of your cows.

Why it happens: Many producers don’t know the actual size of their cows. The milking herd can range in size from 1,200 pounds to 2,000 pounds. If you size the stalls for smaller cows, stall usage will go down as the herd ages and larger animals find it difficult to use the stalls.

If you built a new dairy and stall usage was great when you started out with all heifers, but declined as the herd aged, it could be that your stalls aren’t large enough.

The goal: “Stall dimensions should be selected based on your largest cows,” stresses McFarland. And, if you have a heifer group, you can always adjust the neck rails on those stalls to better position the heifers in the stalls. But if the stall is too small to begin with, you don’t have any options to improve cow comfort for your larger cows.

Head-to-head free-stalls should be 16 feet in length — or 8 feet per stall — and 48 inches wide. In a six-row barn, stalls located against the outside wall should be at least 8.5 feet long in order to give the cows enough forward lunge space.

Mistake #4 Improper use or positioning of neck rails.

Why it happens: Many people still don’t understand the function of a neck rail, says Smith. It is one of the most important pieces to position the cow properly. A properly placed neck rail allows a cow to place all four feet on the stall bed so she can lie down, but prevents her from going too far forward to preserve lunging space. It also encourages a cow to step back as she rises to exit the stall. However, in order to make sure the stall stays clean many people position the neck rail too far back decreasing stall usage.

When you first turn cows into a new barn, you need to push the neck rails forward — about 70 inches from the back of the stall — to encourage cows to enter and use the stalls. Then, and only then, can you start to push the neck rails back in order to position the cows to help limit urinating and defecating in the stall.

Remember, the first goal should be to get the cows to use the stalls. The second is to get the majority of urine and feces to fall in the alley — and not in the stalls.

The goal:  Neck rails should be placed 66 inches from the alley side of the rear curb of the stall and 48 inches above the stall bed. Neck rails should be fixed in place, not free to move up and down.

Some of the problems that arise in free-stalls are not the result of improperly sized stalls. It’s the lack of daily stall management that leads to the problem.

“As we have learned more about how to make cows more comfortable, stall usage has increased,” says McFarland. “However, an increase in stall management must coincide with an increase in cow usage.” Stalls that are used every day need daily maintenance.