Some free-stalls actually inhibit cows from lying down ― one of the reasons an animal-welfare expert has suggested that the dairy industry “re-think the whole concept of free-stall housing.”

Dan Weary, professor in the Animal Welfare Program at the University of British Columbia and a regular contributor to the Journal of Dairy Science, says the switch from tie-stall to free-stall housing over the past 30 years has been “a disaster for foot health,” with high lameness rates on many farms.

Furthermore, much of the hardware that producers keep putting into free-stalls works to keep cows out, he said. For instance:

  • When cows stand half in, half out of the stalls, it is often because the stalls are too narrow.
  • When cows stand completely in the stalls with all four feet, it is often because of improperly positioned neck rails.
  • Improperly positioned brisket boards also inhibit cows from lying down. Weary cited research that shows cows will lie down an additional 1.5 hours per day, on average, when the brisket board is completely removed from the stall.
  • Stocking densities play a critical role as well. “The more you overstock, the more you are fighting against all of the good things you have done in stall design,” he told an audience at the North American Veterinary Conference this past weekend in Orlando, Fla.

Weary acknowledged that some free-stall housing systems work better than others. “There are better ways and worse ways of doing free-stalls,” he said. Generally speaking, “the further you get the metal away from the cow, the better.”

“We need to get out the free-stall rut,” he said, and consider other housing options, such as the composting-bedded-pack barn (with no stalls or partitions between animals) currently being studied by University of Minnesota researchers.