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The stall design / management paradox

Jeff Reneau

Published in Dairy Star September 12, 2009

Two recent Journal of Dairy Science articles raise questions about a trade-off between stall comfort and cow hygiene. In the first article, the objective of the study was to test one feature of freestall design, the position of the neck rail, on stall use behavior and the level of lameness. There was no difference in lying time. However, the cows with the less restrictive positioning (further forward) of the neck rail increased the amount of time they stood with all four feet in the stall and there was significantly less “perching” (front feet in stalls and rear feet in the alley). This resulted in fewer lame cows but at a cost of dirtier stalls and cows that required longer teat cleaning before milking. In the second Journal article researchers looked at tie-stalls and the effect of bedding amounts on lying time. Not surprisingly, cows preferred tie stalls with 2 or more inches of bedding over sparsely bedded tie stalls and lying time was increased from 11 to 12 hours. This study was too short to assess the milk production or health consequences. However, cow behavior studies done by New York researchers indicate that cows are highly motivated to lie down to rest an average of 12 hours each day and that adequate rest is important for maintaining optimum health and productivity. Excessive standing compromises both. There have been ample studies indicating this same conclusion.

Factors resulting in excessive standing are: inadequate stall dimensions and design, uncomfortable stall surface, overstocking, heat stress and bedding moisture. One study has shown that milk production is compromised as much as 2.0 - 3.5 lbs for each hour lost below the 12 hr average resting time. During heat stress, cows stand an average of 3 hours longer each day. Lying time was decreased in another study 1.7 hours when stocking rate increased from 100% to 150%. To accommodate an average 12 hour lying time, do not overstock above 120% of stall space. The same researcher documented a lying time increase from 8.8 hours to 13.8 hours just by switching from wet bedding to dry bedding. The most common health consequence of excess standing time is lameness. Lameness in turn has a direct negative effect on dry matter intake and milk production as well as an indirect negative effect on reproductive performance. The importance of cow comfort cannot be overlooked and neither can cow hygiene.

How do your stall sizes & comfort measure up?
Too many freestalls and tie stalls across the state are too small. Note in Table 1 that a freestall for a 1600 lb cow should be 51” wide, 106” long with minimum body resting space of 70” and a minimum neck rail height of 48”. A tie stall for the similar size mature cow should be 52” wide, 72” long (Table 2). Late gestation dry cows will need a slightly wider stall. Stall use has been shown to be dependent not only on proper design and sizing but also on comfort provided by the stall surface. Sand bedded or deep bedded mattress stalls, for example, provide a more comfortable lying surface than scantily bedded stalls.

Table 1. Freestall recommendations for varying heifer and cow sizes (Nordlund & Cook, 2004).
Body weight (lbs) Stall width (inches) Body resting length (inches) Total stall length (inches) Min. neck rail height (inches)
400 29 43 57 32
600 33 48 65 35
800 36 52 73 37
1000 40 57 81 40
1200 44 61 90 43
1400 47 66 98 45
1600 51 70 108 48
1800 54 75 114 51
Stall width, inches = 0.018 (lbs BW) = 21.9.
Resting Length to brisket board, inches = 0.0224 (lbs BW) + 34.2.
Total stall length for forward lunge, inches = 0.0405 (lbs BW) + 41.
Height to bottom of neck rail, inches = 0.0136 (lbs BW) + 26.4.

Table 2. Tie-stall dimensions estimated for relations to body dimensions and example calculations for mature Holsteins (Neil Anderson, 2008).
Stall dimension Ratio & reference body dimension Example for median cow (1550 lbs)
Bed length = imprint length 1.2 x rump height 1.2 x 60 = 72 inches
Stall width = imprint width * 2.0 x hook bone width 2.0 x 26 = 52 inches
Tie rail height above cows feet
(for Canadian style tie-stall)
0.80 x rump height 0.80 x 60 = 48
*Producers building new tie stalls use a minimum of 54”.

How clean are your stalls?
There are strong positive correlations between the numbers of mastitis bacteria found in the stall bedding, numbers of these bacteria on teat surfaces and the number of mammary gland infections. It is very important not only to keep stall surfaces comfortable but also as clean and dry as possible. While deeply bedded mattress tie stalls and freestalls are more comfortable, they require greater amounts of bedding and increase the need for more careful bedding management. It is easier to get a buildup of environmental pathogens in deeply bedded organic bedding materials. Therefore, removal of all soiled bedding material at each milking is necessary. In addition, periodic removal of all the bedding from the stall (once per week) and replacing this with fresh clean bedding will be necessary to keep bacteria levels down.

Considering our current economic circumstance now is probably not a time to be considering a major stall remodeling project. That said, perhaps you may be able to temporarily improve stall comfort. For freestalls that are too short try removing the neck rail or moving it forward to more easily accommodate cow comfort. If you notice that too many of your cows on freestall or tie stall mattresses have hock lesions, are lame or are not getting adequate rest try using more bedding. But in both cases, you will need to intensify your bedding management in order to achieve both goals of keeping cow clean and comfortable.

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