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Build a Better Barn to Build a Better Cow

The following article was written by Karen Bohnert of Dairy Herd Management and highlights VES-Artex's mission of creating an animal-centered environment.

Most dairy producers will tell you their No. 1 goal is simple: strive for cow comfort. The saying take care of your cows and they will take care of you is shared by many producers. That motto continues as dairies look to build a new barn or even retrofit an existing facility. The key is to begin with the end in mind.


According to Joel Hornby, VES-Artex’s key account manager, when building a new barn, specific consideration needs to be given to the effects of weather, building structure, facility layout and, of course, the cows themselves. He says the first step is to determine your long-range plans.

“If your current location is the best site to meet your future needs, then the next step is to look at historical weather data and drill in on how that’s going to actually influence the barn system and performance, and what those effects could be on your dairy herd,” Hornby says.

Analyzing weather data over the past decade to determine the highs and lows in regard to temperature, humidity and wind data can offer insights when it comes to building.


Paul Fetzer, an owner of Fetzer Farms Inc. in Elmwood, Wis., has always kept cow comfort in consideration when expanding his operation. In 1968, the third-generation family farm milked 100 cows, housed in a freestall barn. The dairy has seen multiple expansions ever since.

Today, Fetzer Farm milks 1,400-plus cows in a double-20 parallel parlor with cows housed in cross ventilation, tunnel ventilation and traditional freestall barns.

After touring cross-ventilated dairies, the Fetzers decided to build their own cross-vent barn in 2008.

“We wanted to still be able to milk cows in our older barn, and being somewhat limited on space, we thought we can get a cross-ventilated barn to fit into the space we had,” he says. “A cross-vent barn would allow us to house more cows in that space than a conventional four- or six-year row barn would.”

Since building their barn, additional fans have been added. They have also changed their side curtains to aid in efficient air flow.

“Working with VES on airflow has been extremely important to cow comfort,” Fetzer says. “Cattle are healthier and more productive when they are cool and comfortable.”


In 2010, Fetzer’s herd veterinarian came out on a hot July day to install hobos, a small data collection device inserted in a cow’s uterus to determine the cow’s core temperature. Testing was performed for two sample groups in two parts of the barn, including one area where the Fetzers had recently added blast fans.

“We discovered we were able to keep those animals in the barn with more fans 1°F cooler, which in the end meant they were eating a little better,” Fetzer says.

The cows that were cooler and more comfortable also maintained their pregnancies through the heat of the summer and held their milk production, too.

“We never saw a significant drop in milk production during the heat of that summer,” Fetzer notes. “We even repeated the experiment in August during another hot spell with the same results. Because of those results, we added more fans to the other end of the barn the following year.”

Overall, Fetzer believes cow comfort has helped his herd reach benchmarks, such as a 22.8-month interval for first calving. Additionally, the Fetzer herd averages 92 lb. milk, with 4.1% butterfat and 3% protein levels, and their cell count hovers around 100,000.


Modifications were made to Fetzer’s existing barns to improve cow comfort, too, a benefit the family feels has impacted their herd for the better.

In 2010, they added tunnel ventilation to the conventionally ventilated milk cow barn, and then added baffles and later ECV fans in the barn to direct that airflow.

“The benefits of a cool and comfortable barn are endless,” Fetzer says. “The heat slumps don’t negatively impact production and fertility in the summer,” he says. “We are able to maintain a healthy animal year round, which impacts breeding, among other things.”

Ventilation is key because it helps cool the barn during the peak of summertime heat as well as help the barn stay warmer in the wintertime.

When the temperature drops below freezing, the ECV fans run at around 25%, which pulls the warm, damp air down from the ceiling. This helps keep alleys thawed and the damp air moving to be exhausted.

Airflow isn’t the only update that can improve cow comfort. The Fetzers have made other modifications to their facility that impact cow comfort, including:

  • Increased stall size. In barns that were previously mattress covered concrete, the decks and curbs were removed, the curbs were repoured to give the cows another 6" of length and sand was added.
  • Bedding. Sand bedding is used in all pens, except for the far-off springing heifers, which have mattress with sawdust bedding. “Switching to sand boosted production 2 lb. per cow, and our cell count dropped from 250,000 to 100,000, even during the summer.”
  • Rubber mat flooring. Rubber flooring is used in the parlor where cows stand and in the front of the holding pen. “We have fewer hoof issues after switching to rubber flooring, but we also ensure cows’ hooves are trimmed at dryoff.”


After years of having their heifers custom raised off-site, in 2013, the Fetzers built a tunnel-ventilated, slatted floor barn to house heifers from 7 months old through breeding, with springing heifers returning home at 160 days pregnant.

In 2018, they built a pen-pack barn to accommodate post-weaned calves, up to 7 months of age. The Fetzers continued to keep cow comfort at the forefront with both of these heifer builds. 

Fetzer Dairy

“Even the calves grow better when we’ve got more control over the environment,” Fetzer says.

While there is no cookie-cutter formula to building a barn to maximize cow comfort, there are many considerations to keep in mind. Starting backward with the overall goal can help you build or modify the perfect housing for your cattle. In the end, your cattle will thank you and so will your milk check.


Joel Hornby with VES-Artex suggests negating poor air quality and heat stress is preventative so long as producers purposefully orient their barns. He outlines four overlooked methods that can increase cow comfort.

1. Manure flumes. Hornby suggests closing off flumes to the outside air and canceling them as a preferred inlet to prevent poor air quality in your facility. Instead, consider your curtain system is set to the optimal height to increase your facility’s air quality.

2. Connecting links or common locations for short-circuiting. This often delivers air from the holding areas. To resolve this issue, you can isolate the area with a door, use fresh air injection to cancel the link as the preferred inlet, or build a link at the end of the inlet.

3. Sealing strips. Don’t throw them away. They have value in your facility. Instead, use them to control where the air goes in the facility.

4. Holding area exhaust. You don’t want humid and warm air in your facility. Holding area air has the second-worst air quality on the dairy, behind manure processing areas. We suggest using deflector kits to decrease contaminated air because all air entering will be less affected by the exhaust.  

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