The focus on cow comfort and what that means for facility design has come a long way in the past 30 years. From changes in stall size to a focus on ventilation and new bedding styles, there’s no question farmers put a high priority on comfort and the increased profitability that comes along with it.
There are a few key areas of cow comfort, producers can always take a closer look at to refine their barns and increase their profitability, says Dan McFarland, dairy facilities expert.
“If it smells like a barn, you need better ventilation,” said R.E. Graves in 1996. Graves was one of McFarland’s mentors when he began working with Penn State Extension in the 1990s.
“Every housing decision a farmer makes has a benefit and a consequence. They have to decide which consequence they want to put up with,” McFarland says. “That’s why no one ventilation system is perfect for every farm.”
Cows in hot climates benefit the most from mechanical ventilation because of the predictable air exchange, he says. On the other hand, natural ventilation saves energy because the wind is free.
“The advantage of natural ventilation is wind speed and direction primarily determine the air exchange,” he explains. “The disadvantage is wind speed and direction determine air change. When the wind doesn’t blow, or isn’t blowing at an adequate speed, the air exchange is compromised. With a mechanical ventilation system, like tunnel, cross or now the hybrid system, you’re getting a more predictable air exchange.”
Air exchange is critical to remove heat and moisture from the barn.
“When it’s hot, high-producing cows are probably putting out in the range of 7 gal. to 7.5 gal. of moisture just by breathing,” McFarland explains. “An inadequate air exchange leads to wet, smelly conditions that compromise animal health and productivity. Providing a season-appropriate air exchange allows more fresh, dry air to enter the animal space, controlling pollutant levels and creating a healthier environment.”
Throughout his career, farmers have continued to be more willing to install fans and spray cooling to help cows cope with heat stress, McFarland says. It’s critical for productivity that cows stay cool.
“Heat stress is a profit killer,” he says.
Research has shown once a cow’s body temperature exceeds 102°F, she is much less likely to spend time lying down in a stall, which can start a cascade of events affecting milk yield and milk fat production, explains Don Jaquette, a dairy nutritionist who works for ADM Animal Nutrition.
“Heat abatement or cooling in holding pens and the prefresh pen should also be a top priority,” he says. “Heat stress abatement is key for optimizing cow comfort. Farmers should make sure cows have access to clean, fresh water, which will help mitigate heat stress and keep cows more comfortable.”
Stall Size & Bedding
When McFarland began his career, 7' freestalls were the recommendation. Today, he recommends a 9' to 9.5' stall depending on if it has an open or closed front. Neck rails have also come up about 12" since the 1990s, and stall width has also increased. But what has really changed is bedding.
“Where we used to use concrete, we’ve added more bedding. Now we’re doing more generous bedding with mattress alternatives in addition to bedding,” he says. “Things like that made dramatic improvements in the 2000s, and I think we’re still refining some of those things.”
Regardless of the type of bedding, increasing the volume used and applying it more frequently generally results in improved comfort, cleanliness and reduced injuries, McFarland says.
One indication you’re not adequately bedding cows is if you start to see an increase in lameness, he explains.
“Bedding materials help keep the resting surface dry, provide cushion and reduce abrasions,” McFarland says. “Generously bedded stalls require 4" to 8" of bedding to provide adequate cushion and comfort for dairy cows.”
When evaluating facilities for cow comfort, farmers should make sure to take a close look at stocking density, Jaquette advises.
“In four-row barns, when stocking density exceeds 120%, cow comfort is compromised with less time lying in stalls,” he says. “Decreased resting time translates to decreased rumination, more aggressive behavior at the feed bunk and more lameness issues.”
Additionally, overcrowding lactating groups creates overcrowded dry cow and maternity areas that might cause increased freshening disorders and poorer performance in the following lactation, McFarland says.
“Cow comfort, health and well-being, not just total pounds of milk, should determine the success of overcrowding any cow group,” he adds.
Feed Availability & Bunk Space
Proper feed bunk design, adequate feed bunk space and bunk cleanliness are all critical components in maximizing cow comfort and helping maximize dry-matter intake, Jaquette says.
“Cows eat 10 to 12 meals a day spending up to six hours consuming feedstuffs, so having feed available to cows, and cows available to feed, is essential,” McFarland adds. “Excessive time spent in the milking center, empty feed tables and feed out-of-reach all compromise dry-matter intake.”
Often cows get thirsty quickly after eating or being milked and should not be away from drinking water more than an hour at a time, McFarland advises.
“Provide multiple water stations large enough to allow 10% to 15% of the group to drink at the same time and located in a convenient path between feed and resting areas,” he says.
There’s no simple indicator you need additional focus on cow comfort. McFarland recommends farmers pay attention to other issues causing lost productivity and consider how those issues tie back to cow comfort.