TUMBA, Sweden ― Could it be that free-stalls are designed with people in mind rather than cows?

Design facilities for cows, not peopleAt last summer's Cow Longevity Conference sponsored by DeLaval, a veterinarian and professor in the farm animal health department at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands said many of the things about free-stalls are not well-suited for cows.

“Cubicles (or free-stalls) have been built for farmers,” said Frank van Eerdenburg. “Cubicles have not been made for cows.”

For instance, stalls are designed for the cows to defecate outside the lying area, which is beneficial for the people maintaining the barn, but not really conducive to the cows’ natural lying behavior, he pointed out.

“Most of the free-stalls are too short for the cow to lie down comfortably,” van Eerdenburg said. “With those brisket boards, they cannot stretch their legs forward” ―a position that cows like to assume, he adds.

The width of the stalls is problematic as well, he said, because “cows can lie in only one position; they cannot lie on their sides and they cannot stretch their legs.”

He added, “Free-stalls should be designed according to the size and the needs of the cows, not the farmer.”

If cows can lie down comfortably for 12 hours or more every day, they will be more productive and more likely to stay in the herd.  

Yet, high cull rates ― between 35 and 40 percent in the United States and some European countries like Sweden ― indicate there are a number of challenges to improving longevity.

“Most of the culling we do is the result of poor animal welfare, poor animal health, “ Jeffrey Rushen, adjunct professor in the dairy education and research center at the University of British Columbia, told attendees at the Cow Longevity Conference.  The main reasons for culling include reproductive problems, mastitis, lameness and sickness and injury.

Often, management tweaks will help ― it’s not always a matter of a major facility redesign, Rushen pointed out. For instance, an initiative funded by the Dairy Farmers of Canada had researchers going to 240 farms and identifying risk factors. Seventy three percent of the farms, when told of the risk factors at their facilities, made a management change.  

Changes might include extra bedding in the stalls or non-slip flooring.

“There are some quite simple solutions that can result in better health and welfare,” he said, which results in greater longevity.