A few weeks ago while looking through a dairy magazine I saw an ad for a freestall system claiming clean stalls. The pictures in the ad did in fact show some very clean, almost spotless, stalls. Then the other day while on a farm evaluating stalls, I was surprised at how clean the stalls where. No manure at the back of the stalls, none tracked into the stalls, and clean bedding. Then it hit me! What was missing from those pictures in the ad, or from the stalls I was looking at? Cows!!

Are spotlessly clean stalls really the goal? The ad showed well bedded, clean, and empty stalls. While I was standing in a barn full of cows, very few were lying down. So I started to look at the cows. While they were not filthy cows, they were not show ring ready either. Many had hygiene scores in the 3 range, and a few swollen hocks could be seen. So I decided to find a corner of the pen, hangout, and watch cows for a while. What I found was that cows seemed to use a lot of time just wandering around the pen. They had feed in the bunk and ample water in the waterers, so what were they doing? Well, I guess the answer is nothing! Remember what we want cows to do is eat, drink, and lie down to make milk. These girls were doing none of these things.

As I watched cows they did use the stalls, but more as a place to stand in and hangout for a while, then after 10 to 15 minutes they would lie down. When they did lie down they looked cramped and were restless. When they would rise they did so by rocking to get up momentum and then very awkwardly would raise their back end and ‘army crawl’ backwards before raising their front. Many of those standing cows were perched, i.e. front two feet in the stall and rear two feet in the alley.

What I was watching was in fact a well groomed, very clean, but poorly designed stall. The limited forward lunge room was making it hard for these girls to rise normally, so therefore they didn’t really lie down until they were tired. When they did lie down, the brisket locator (board) was holding them too far back or they were on top of it, causing them to be restless. The neck rail position was causing these girls to perch in the stalls and requiring them to crawl out from under it before completely rising.

So am I saying well designed stalls should be dirty? No, but they maybe should looked ‘lived in.’ There should be enough lunge room for animals to rise normally, the brisket locator should allow the cow to lie completely on the stall bed, and the neck rail should allow the animal to be completely in the stall before she lies down. A few manure piles at the rear of the stalls doesn’t necessarily mean a poorly managed stall, but rather a well-used stall, which is a good thing. Rather than just look at how clean the stalls are, watch and evaluate how the cows use the stalls. In the end a clean, well-used stall is the real goal.

For more on freestall design and management check out Penn State Agricultural and Biological Engineering Factsheet G-76 “Designing and Building Dairy Cattle Freestalls.” The factsheet can be downloaded at: http://pubs.cas.psu.edu/freepubs/pdfs/G76.pdf.