When raising a herd of dairy cattle, it’s important to do your research on care techniques, such as the structure of their housing facility. Animals’ basic needs must be met so they’ll have a comfortable and enjoyable home, which decreases stress and increases production and ease for farmworkers. In dairy cattle specifically, any social stress, especially long-term social stress, can lead to compromised immunity and increased somatic cell count as well as decreased milk production. The housing/management style that will be discussed in this article is tie-stalls.

When it comes to tie-stall barns, each cow is chained into its own specific stall, with their name/identification above them, preventing movement toward other cows but still allowing interaction on either side of the stall. The USDA reported that in 2007, about 62% of U.S. dairy barns were using tie-stall facilities. More recent predictions indicate that 39% of farms today use tie-stall facilities, a 23% decrease since 2007.

If properly built, the tie-stall barn can be very productive and beneficial for farmworkers and the herd. In terms of stall design, the cows must be able to comfortably and naturally lie down and rest as well as stand up afterward. Cows naturally lean forward when standing up, so there must be enough room for them to rock their bodies forward and back. The length of the stall should be based on how much space the cow takes up when lying down, including her tail, as well as the space in the front of her body for leaning forward to stand up.

This length will vary between breeds, but an overall equation to determine the length would be the rump height in inches multiplied by 1.2. In terms of width, the minimum width necessary for a mature Holstein is about 54 inches. There should be gutters installed at the end of the stalls for manure collection. The gutters should have large enough slits for manure to enter, but not large enough for the cow to fall in. Electrical trainers are commonly used above each stall to prevent the cow from arching her back too far and missing the gutter while defecating.

The type of bedding that is used is critical, as cows don’t have a choice whether they stay in their stall or move around. The comfort and quality of the bedding will affect their resting time, stress level and even their risk of lameness and swollen hocks. In the front of the stall, there needs to be a tie rail that connects the chain on the cow’s collar to the specific stall. If the rail is not at the proper height, or the length of the chain is incorrect, the ability for the cow to comfortably lay down and stand up will be negatively impacted, potentially preventing them from even trying to lay down or stand up.

In order to calculate rail height, you should measure the cow’s rump height and multiply it by 0.8. The length of the chain is important; if it’s too long, the cow may be able to lie in the gutter behind her, decreasing cleanliness, as well as increasing the risk of wrapping the chain around her leg and causing injury. If the chain is too short, the cow may pull on the chain and collar to lay down or eat, causing neck lesions and preventing her from defecating into the gutter.

Cattle housing designs: Tie-stall barns

There are pros and cons to consider if you’re looking to utilize a tie-stall barn. Photo by Kelsi Devolve

There are many pros to the tie-stall barn design, if all of the above standards are met:

  • No competition for feed or lying space since each cow is given her own stall and food source.
  • There is great and easy individual care and monitoring. Since each cow has its own stall, it’s more efficient to monitor them and administer them for treatment. It is easier to locate her when she is always in her stall, not mixed in with the rest of the group, and it’s easier to determine which cow is which. Veterinary work and breeding is simpler because you don’t have to worry about the rest of the herd getting in the way. Food intake monitoring is simple since they all have their own food access. Providing special food for each cow is easier. You can even have special stalls for all life stages, such as first lactation heifers, milking cows and dry cows.
  • In this setup, you have the option of either tie-stall milking or moving them to a milking parlor. In tie-stall milking, the milking machines are brought to the cows in their individual stalls, which can be a lot more work for laborers. However, in a milking parlor, the cows are moved from their stalls to the parlor. In this case, there is the benefit of giving the cows exercise and interaction while outside of their stalls as well as decreased labor.
  • Tie-stalls can reduce stress from social orders. If there is a dominant cow in the herd, she will be prevented from stealing food or bullying the rest of the herd that are lower in the hierarchy.
  • Mortality rates are even reduced in some herds by preventing fights. This can also decrease the risk of worker injuries.

There are also some cons to the tie-stall design:

  • Movement of cows is restricted, as for most of the day they will be confined to their individual stalls.
  • There is decreased socializing ability, as they can only interact with the cows directly to their right and left.
  • Poor design can lead to numerous health problems: Lameness, broken tails, swollen hocks, neck lesions, reduced reproductive performance, higher cull rates, decreased cow comfort and decreased cow cleanliness.
  • There is a lack of exercise ability due to the restricted movement. This can lead to increased agitation, stress and weight gain.

It is essential to keep all of these considerations (potential pros, potential cons, requirements for the design of the barn, effect on the laborers) in mind when determining which barn design will be the best for your herd and production goals. In some circumstances, the decision may be more obvious depending on the size of your herd and the amount of staff available. In other cases, with a small staff, it may be easier to use a free-stall barn instead of a tie-stall barn. It also may be easier to do milking in the individual stalls instead of moving all of the cows to the milking parlor.

On the other hand, a tie-stall barn may be easier than a free-stall because of the increased safety of dealing with one cow at a time instead of a group of cows at once. Sending them up to the milking parlor may also be easier as you don’t have to move the milking machines.

There is no easy answer, but there are many more barn styles to consider, such as free-stall and bedded pack, that will be discussed in future editions of Country Folks.

by Kelsi Devolve