The following is from a presentation by Frank van Eerdenburg, veterinarian and professor in the farm animal health department at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands. He presented it at the Cow Longevity Conference in late August, sponsored by DeLaval.

Q: Cows produce more milk in a comfortable environment ― it’s one of the things that nutritionists and other consultants have to convince their clients of when making facility changes. What are some of the recommendations for free-stalls?   

A: The free-stalls must provide cows enough space to:

  • Stretch their front legs forward.
  • Lie on their sides with unobstructed space for their neck and head.
  • Rest their heads against their sides without hindrance from a partition.
  • Rest with their legs, udders and tails on the platform.
  • Stand or lie without pain or fear from neck rails, partitions or supports and rest on a clean, dry and soft bed.
  • The slope of the floor, which is important to keep the stall clean, should be between four to seven degrees.  

Size of free stalls should match the size of the cows

Free-stall dimensions should be selected based on the largest cows in the herd. For a heifer group, stall dimensions can be adapted by adjusting the position of the neck rail. Stall dimensions should provide the cows enough forward lunge space. If the stall is too short, the cow may try to get up by rising on the front legs first (like a horse). Alternatively, if the stall makes lying down difficult, the cows may show frequent hesitation before lying down, usually sniffing the ground and moving their heads left and right.

Cows should have enough space to lunge forward or sideways

The lunge space is the space taken up by the head of the cow as it moves forward to stand up. It is the space in front of the brisket board. Cinematic analysis of standing up movements, indicate that dairy cattle use between 260 and 300 cm (or 102.4 to 118.1 inches) of total longitudinal space (from the nose to the most caudal point of the cow). The space needed for the lateral movement range from 60 to 110 cm at the hips. Estimates of space used by the head while lunging, based on the longitudinal movement of the nose, range between 22 and 72 cm. This is especially important for a row of stalls along walls. The cows may have no room to lunge forward in these stalls. They need therefore a space to lunge sideward. The divider should not block this space. The early types of dividers were usually problematic in this respect.

Brisket board: yes or no?

The brisket board is meant to help position the cow as she lies down. It should be placed >180 cm from the rear curb, the top of the brisket board should not be more than 10 cm above the top of the rear curb. The brisket board should be smooth to prevent skin abrasions. A well-designed and placed brisket board allows an easier placement of the neck rail. Thus, less restriction in lying down and rising movements. However, a free-stall can very well be designed without a brisket board in order to increase cow comfort.


Bedding serves two purposes. Firstly, it softens the floor in order to improve comfort and welfare of the cow. Secondly, it keeps the cows and the area they lie on clean. The comfort of a stall will depend greatly on the type and quality of flooring in the stall. Optimal flooring should provide adequate thermal insulation (depending on the temperature), an appropriate degree of softness, an appropriate degree of friction, a low risk of abrasion and should be easy to maintain and clean.

Bedding should be soft

Soft bedding is very important for cattle. One has to realize that cows drop on one of their front knees when they are going to lie down. Because there is not much subcutaneous fat, there is no dampening of the force, resulting in a rather painful event for the cow if the floor is hard. One can test the softness of the bedding by letting oneself drop quickly on his knees (knee test). If it hurts for the farmer, it will hurt for the cow as well. This is usually a good way of convincing farmers to improve the bedding.

Bedding should be dry and clean

Cows prefer dry bedding over wet material. Furthermore, bedding should be dry in order to prevent the growth of bacteria. It is therefore important to cover soft cow mattresses with a thin layer of sawdust or ground limestone, just to keep it dry. Adequate ventilation helps to keep the bedding dry. Doing the knee test for softness, one can stay on the bedding for 10 seconds, with all the weight on one knee. If the knee remains dry, the bedding can be considered as dry enough. In general, a regular (minimal twice a day) cleaning and refreshing of the bedding is required.

Bedding material should be inorganic

Most bedding material is made of organic compounds and, therefore, a risk factor for the growth of bacteria. A high bacteria count in the bedding can be a risk factor for the development of mastitis. Furthermore, it induces a higher bacterial count in the bulk milk as well. Bedding can be made a like a mattress or waterbed. Or it can be composed of loose material like straw, sawdust, wood chips, composted vegetable wastes or manure, sand, ground limestone, shredded paper, wood shavings, etc.  Sand and ground limestone are the only materials that are inorganic and that can have low bacterial counts.

It is van Eerdenburg’s belief that many free-stalls are designed with people in mind, rather the cows. Click here for a video interview with van Eerdenburg.