A heifer turned loose in a free-stall pen for the first time might feel like a child heading off to her first day of kindergarten - a little bit apprehensive about leaving home. To a heifer, "home" might have been a bedded pack she shared with five or six peers. Like the kindergartner, the heifer finds herself in unfamiliar surroundings. A little nudge, however, can help her take that first step into a free-stall.

Here are five ways to encourage heifers to use free-stalls - and to keep them coming back.

1 Provide a properly sized stall.

Heifers need an incentive to use free-stalls. That incentive is the same one you would use to promote free-stall acceptance by cows: "Make it the most comfortable place to rest," says Dan McFarland, Penn State cooperative extension agricultural engineer in York, Pa.

A comfortable bed starts with a properly sized free-stall. Unfortunately, the "one-size-fits-all" approach that you can use for most cows does not apply to heifers. To overcome this challenge, size free-stalls according to the bodyweight and age of the heifers that will use them. Use the recommendations listed in "Free-stall dimensions for heifers," on page 32, as your guide.

However, if you already have free-stalls built that are too large, you can use a neck rail - a bar positioned directly above the brisket board - or a solid panel located at the front of the stall to shorten stall length, McFarland says. It is preferable, however, to match stall size with heifer size.

2 Group animals by size.

Like the bully on the playground, larger heifers sometimes like to push their smaller peers around. If a scuffle occurs near the last unoccupied free-stall, the big bully usually gets the stall, and the little gal gets the alley.

To minimize this sort of conflict, group animals with similar bodyweights and ages together.

This practice occurs at the Agway TSPF (Test Specific-Pathogen-Free) Heifer Farm in Elba, N.Y. Heifers enter free-stalls at 12 weeks of age, weighing about 225 pounds, says A.J. Wormuth, farm manager at the 3,600-head heifer farm. Because of the large number of animals raised on the farm, the heifers are not more than three weeks apart in age. This, however, is more difficult to achieve on dairies that don't have a steady stream of heifers.

At Agway, when the heifers outgrow the free-stalls in one barn, they move as a group to the next building. To maintain a uniform bodyweight and size in each group, they weigh the heifers and measure their height before moving them to the next free-stall barn, Wormuth says.

Dairies with fewer heifers can set up pens with different sized free-stalls to accommodate the growing heifers.

3 Don't overcrowd.

Heifers that must compete for a limited number of stalls may choose to lie in the alley rather than fight for a stall. Therefore, avoid overcrowding heifers in a free-stall pen.

There is, however, no "magic number" when it comes to group size. In most cases, group size depends on your herd size and calving interval, says Bill Bickert, agricultural engineer at Michigan State University. As a general guideline, Bickert recommends grouping no more than 20 animals together, especially heifers less than one year of age.

At Hidden View Holsteins, a 70-cow dairy in Robesonia, Pa., the feed bunk in each pen accommodates 11 animals. So, owners Tim and Teresa Kissling maintain no more than 11 animals per pen. The Kisslings "open up" the last two bred heifer pens to create a group size of 22 animals.

In any situation, keep the number of animals per group at a level that allows you to manage them properly. If you have too many animals per group, it becomes "more difficult to pick out an animal that's not doing well," Bickert adds.

4 Make a smooth transition.

It has been said that young children often learn and retain knowledge better than older kids. Well, that same thing may be true for heifers - the older they are, the harder it is to train them to use free-stalls, says Teresa Kissling.

To ease the transition to free-stalls, the Kisslings introduce heifers into free-stalls at five to six months of age.

While younger is preferable to older, avoid putting heifers much younger than five to six months of age - or about 350 to 400 pounds - in free-stalls, Bickert says.

You also might consider sending your heifers off, so to speak, with their favorite "blanket" - that is, something familiar from a previous pen, such as bedding.

At the Agway heifer farm in New York, heifers move from a sawdust-bedded pack to free-stalls. To ease the transition, they use sawdust to bed the first two free-stall pens, Wormuth says.

At Hidden View Holsteins in Pennsylvania, four-month-old heifers spend one month in a pen that contains a sawdust-bedded pack before they move into the free-stalls, says Teresa Kissling. They continue to use the familiar bedding source on top of comfortable mattresses when heifers move into the free-stalls. In addition, the pen that contains the bedded pack has a slatted floor at the feed bunk - "something they need to get used to" when they move into a free-stall setting, Kissling adds.

5 Maintain stalls regularly.

Well-maintained stalls encourage heifers to use them instead of the alley.

Heifers, however, tend to be "just a little more active" than cows, and as such, tend to dig at the free-stall bed, McFarland says. Because of this aggressive behavior, maintain the stall bed judiciously.

A well-maintained free-stall bed meets the following criteria: 1) provides a smooth surface, 2) offers the most comfortable place for the heifer to lie down and 3) provides a clean, dry resting surface.

Accomplish the first two criteria by keeping the stall base in good shape and by providing an ample amount of bedding, McFarland says. A generously bedded mattress or a 6- to 8-inch bed of sand is a good bedding choice.

And, consider using the same bedding source that your lactating herd uses. "That's what they're going to be (exposed) to later on," Bickert says, so it makes sense to acclimate heifers to it before they calve.

To achieve the third factor - a clean, dry resting area - establish a regular cleaning schedule that helps keep the stalls and alley clean.

Just as school be-comes a familiar place for children, so, too, can free-stalls become familiar to your heifers. Stick with these strategies to achieve success when housing heifers in free-stalls.

Heifer housing resources

The following resource materials contain information to help you plan free-stall housing for heifers:

  • "Dairy Freestall Housing and Equipment," MWPS-7, seventh edition, 2000. Cost is $26.50. To order, contact MidWest Plan Service (MWPS) at (800) 562-3618, or order online at: www.mwpshq.org
  • "Penn State Freestall and Heifer Housing Plans," NRAES 85. Cost is $15, plus shipping and handling. To order, contact MWPS at (800) 562-3618, or order online at: www.mwpshq.org

Why do heifers lie in the alley?

According to Dan McFarland, Penn State cooperative extension agricultural engineer in York, Pa., heifers lie in alleys for three reasons:

1. The free-stall's size or structure prevents them from lying down properly.

2. They have sustained an injury that inhibits them from entering the stall.

3. A dominant animal prevents them from using the stalls.
One size doesn't fit all

To encourage free-stall acceptance by heifers, size the stall to fit the animal. According to this illustration and the table shown below, the free-stall dimensions for a six- to eight-month-old heifer (shown in red) vary significantly from the stall size used for heifers that are 13 to 15 months (shown in blue). Therefore, you should not use the same stall for heifers of different sizes and ages.