Expert Insights

Do You have a Cow Friendly Barn?

How much does cow comfort impact a dairy’s bottom line? There is a dramatic correlation between a happy herd and cows who are thinking the grass may be greener somewhere else. Simply put, greater productivity and milk yield can be achieved through greater cow comfort. There is a strong relationship between daily milk yield per cow and time spent resting, and a cow friendly barn may be the answer.

So, what does this mean for the owner of a dairy operation and its impact on a cow friendly barn? The answer lies in the many variables that affect the comfort of our dairy cows. The five main variables that are key for the comfort of any dairy herd include:

  1. Flooring material
  2. Free stall design and dimensions
  3. Ventilation and environment control strategies
  4. Feed rail designs
  5. Lighting

By focusing on improving the quality of these factors, we can isolate the keys to optimizing cow comfort. Although, individually, they may seem insignificant enough, when compiled, there can be a significant impact on the herd and ultimately an impact on the overall production of milk. In other words, if 3 percent of your herd has issues with some condition that disrupts natural behavior, and this number is multiplied by 500 cows … it becomes a serious concern. Multiply this number by the five variables and this loss of comfort translates to a major loss of dollars.

Flooring material

Flooring composition and design can have a strong influence on the health and wellbeing of your dairy herd. The pattern and material that makes up the flooring in your facility will have a dramatic impact on the health of your cow’s limbs and their hooves. In some instances, especially in older barns, floors were made up of rough, uneven material to give the cows more traction. This has quite the opposite effect, however, an uneven surface for cows to move offers less stability. The most dangerous part of a cow’s journey into the milking parlor are the turns they need to make to arrive at their station. In these pivots (or turns in direction) lies the greatest potential for lost footing and the resulting injury.

What are the best characteristics of proper flooring in a milking parlor for a cow friendly barn? If your current flooring has grooves that are too deep or are made of some uneven material like cobblestone, it’s best to cover them with a leveling layer of high-grade construction concrete or rubber.

Improper footing for a dairy herd can lead to many problems: digital dermatitis, foot rot, white line separation, sole hemorrhage, sole ulcers and laminitis. All of this can be controlled by optimizing walking surfaces and proper trimming and foot baths.

Free stall designs and dimensions

There are many factors that come into play in a well-designed stall for your cows. Free stalls should allow as much freedom as possible without impinging on other cow’s stall access. There should be little hesitation to lay down or rise in a stall once the cow has entered. Also, the lying position should maintain stall hygiene. It all comes down to reduced standing time equals reduced lameness and increased production. It’s a matter of numbers that says the less time a cow spends standing, the greater their comfort and the less time there is for injury.

There is also the matter of space in the stall when it comes to the action of the cow standing up or lying down. The biomechanics of movement for most cows should allow nine feet of bed length. This distance accommodates normal forward lunge space, which is motion cows use to stand up. There should be no interference from the sides of the stall (stall loops) or bars in the front. This includes bars or any type of indicator which acts as a brisket locator.

Ventilation and environment control strategies

Ventilation is critical in both the warm and cool months. It’s important farms operate using effective cooling velocity fans. This way, stress is reduced on the herd, cows are comfortable and more easily able to maintain a healthy and consistent body temperature. Dairy farmers should inject fresh air into the cow friendly barn where it is redistributed to the animal level. Total system components of an ideal setup in the barn include:

  • Recirculation Fans
    • Destratify air column in the barn
    • Create the air flow requirements at the cow occupied zone <6’
  • Exhaust Fans
    • Provide air exchange
    • Create velocity through barn cross section
  • Intake (curtain or pressure fans)
    • Main intake source of fresh air to the facility
    • Short circuiting issues
  • Cooling
    • Soakers
    • HPF (high pressure fogging) to lower the ambient temperature in your entire facility
  • Control System

The main goals of creating an optimal climate for the herd are to control the balance of “perching and bunching.” Perching is when cows become uncomfortable or wary of lying down in their stall. Bunching often happens because of a situation of poor ventilation or any other issue that causes the herd to congregate. The whole barn should be used by the cows and there shouldn’t be environmental factors driving the cows to exhibit an unnatural behavior.

Feed rail designs

Cows get hungry. In fact, they will exert 500 lb. of muscle pressure when eating against an improperly designed feed barrier. There are a number of issues with this situation, not the least being that tissue damage in cows starts occurring at the point of only 225 lb. of pressure. It’s important to design a feed rail that allows the cows to easily reach their food.


Lighting also plays an important role in cow comfort because improper lighting can cause undue stress. Lighting should be even and consistent to prevent unnecessary shadows that may alarm the cows as they move about the barn. Also, lighting that is too dim or too bright can create significant stress that will undermine the health and well-being of the herd.

Have your cows changed since your barn was built?

The fact of the matter is that many barns (even those build as recently as 1999-2000) need a significant barn makeover. Much of the science behind the comfort of our dairy herds was not established, or at least understood, by the companies who constructed our barns. Also, many dairy farmers have changed their dairy breed to a larger cow body type, which has made their barns somewhat obsolete for their expanding herds.

Cows exhibit the behavior we promote. If we give them the proper environment to flourish, they will react accordingly. By following these important guidelines and perhaps changing the way you do business with your herd, you will see substantial upticks in production. This will increase the opportunities for a larger milk yield and everyone — cows and farmers — will be happy.

For more information on these topics, see the recording of Dr. Mike Wolf veterinarian as he offers the specifics on which environmental factors have the most important impacts on cow comfort and productivity.

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