When raising a herd of cattle, the type of housing system used can highly influence the cleanliness, well-being and production of the cows, as well as the ease of management and profits for the farm.

One of the most well-known barn management techniques is a free-stall barn. In these barns, animals are not restrained to a specific stall but instead are kept within a pen with access to various stalls and have the ability to roam around and socialize. The most important parts of maintaining a free-stall barn are finding the balance between providing optimal cleanliness and space to allow cow comfort, reducing excessive standing, maximizing rumination and minimizing injury.

To make a healthy free-stall barn, you must work to reduce exposure of mastitis by preventing mastitis-causing organisms from growing near the teats.

Considering each cow is not confined to their own resting area, the myriad stalls must be well-maintained, comfortable and have enough space. Ideally, a cow should lie in her stall for 10 – 14 hours a day. The stall length should be an average of 84 inches, not including her lunge space (the room a cow requires in order to rock her body to go from laying down to standing up).

There are two different ways to satisfy the lunge space requirement, with either a side-lunge free-stall or a forward-lunge free-stall. In a side lunge free-stall, the cow turns and thrusts her body into a stall space on either side of her to help gain the momentum to rise. The lowest rail between these stalls should be either higher than 28 inches to allow her head to sneak under the bar or lower than seven inches for her head to go above the bar. In a forward-lunge stall, additional stall length would be available.

There are various bedding materials that can be used, such as straw, sawdust, wood chips, rice hulls and composted manure, but the ideal material for a free-stall is usually sand. The loose sand not only absorbs any moisture or manure in the stalls, creating a drier and cleaner environment, but it also adds resilience, making the stall more comfortable and less likely to cause injuries. It’s essential to keep the sand dry, as moisture creates a perfect environment for bacteria to thrive, leading to diseases, illness and infections.

Loose sand is able to conform to the cattle’s body no matter what position she is in, reducing pressure on any individual bone or body part. As the cow is rising, the distributed pressure will especially protect her knees.

Besides bedding, ventilation is required for the health and quality of breathable air. The sidewalls ideally should be able to open at least 75% to allow air flow, and the roofs should be sloped to allow warm air to rise.

Free-stall and bedded pack cattle barns

As the name implies, a free-stall barn design allow cows a lot more freedom during their days, but there are other factors to think about as well. Photo by Kelsi Devolve

Another popular housing style is a bedded pack barn. In these barns, livestock are housed in the same area that the waste storage is kept and maintained. Livestock are provided with a large bedded pen that is used for both resting and walking. A general rule of thumb is that for every 1,000 pounds of livestock, there should be 75 square feet of bedded area, which does not include the space for feed and water.

Considering that livestock housing is combined with the manure management area, there is less area needed to be dedicated to livestock and manure storage. The walls should be built at least four to six feet tall to allow plenty of room for the manure and bedding to build up.

One of the largest downsides of a bedded pack is the intensive management required to clean and maintain a comfortable environment for the cows. Generally, the barn should start with a one- to 1.5-foot layer of either wood shavings or sawdust. As the barn is used and the bedding moistens, fresh bedding should be added to keep the top layer dry. Two times a day, the bedding should be aerated, which brings in oxygen to help aerobic breakdown and provides a fresher surface on the top of the bedding.

Bedding should be aerated about eight to 10 inches deep. Generally, about 18 tons of bedding will have to be added every two to five weeks, or some can be added once a week, or a little once a day. In any case, bedding has to be constantly replaced, while leaving about six inches of old material to keep microbial activity present.

Due to all the bedding replacements, the annual costs to maintain the barn are much higher than they are for tie-stall or free-stall barn designs. Due to the presence of manure, there is a greater exposure to environmental pathogens, possibly leading to high somatic cell counts, mastitis, dirtier cows and reduction in milk yield.

On the other hand, there are a lot of benefits to having a bedded pack barn. There is increased cow comfort, leading to increased laying time, increased play behavior and increased estrous behavior, such as standing to be mounted, chin rubbing on rump and pregnancy rates. Bedded pack barns have a reduced cost in terms of buildings and storage facilities for manure management, since it can all be completed and stored in the same facility. Due to the manure storage, there are greater soil amendment values, and the composted pack manure can even be used for fertilizer at the barn or sold for additional income.

Both the free-stall and bedded pack designs allow for more socialization, interaction, freedom and exercise than a tie-stall barn, where each cow is stationed at her own stall to rest, eat and drink. All barn designs have their pros and cons, but the ideal design depends on the size of your herd, the goals of the farm and your budget.

by Kelsi Devolve