Committing to what’s already there

by Sally Colby

Dairy farmers who want to increase herd size or make barn improvements have several choices: grow the herd and construct new buildings, or maintain the same herd numbers and refurbish an existing barn. Those who have tie stall barns may have penciled in a plan to convert to free stall housing at some point, but milk prices made that option impractical.

Tie stall barns work well for many and are worth keeping if the dairyman is satisfied with the system. Dr. Chad Dechow’s work at Penn State’s Department of Animal Science is primarily with dairy cattle genetics, but he’s also interested in dairy herd management and animal welfare in relation to housing. Dechow said tie stall barns are potentially easy targets for the non-ag public who view tie stall barns as restrictive, but he said such barns shouldn’t be dismissed.

Dechow said tie stall barns have numerous advantages, including infrequent cow moves that can potentially upset a group’s social status, no competition for feed or lying space and the availability to more closely observe individual animals.

If the farmer plans to keep cow numbers the same, there are ample good reasons to update or build a new tie stall barn rather than switch to loose housing. “Make sure your cows can get out of the barn and get to pasture,” said Dechow. “That will provide a little bit of a firewall against some of the animal welfare regulations that may come from co-ops.” Dechow recommends farms with tie stall housing have a plan in place to ensure cows have access to pasture, and that the barn and cows are clean.

Penn State ag engineer Dan McFarland agrees with Dechow on positive points of a tie stall barn.

“Some of the advantages of tie stall housing are individual care and attention, observed feed intake, good access to feed and water,” said McFarland. “It may be more economical for smaller herds – typically 100 cows or fewer. Cows are tied to a designated stall, feed is delivered at the front of the stall and there is usually more feed space per cow than most free stall or loose housing systems.”

For new tie stall barns, McFarland said there are several trends, including larger buildings, sometimes with up to 200 stalls. “There’s more emphasis on cow comfort,” he said. “Good ventilation year round, and good feed and water access. We’re also seeing more heat stress abatement, primarily tunnel ventilation for rapid air exchange as well as a cooling breeze to keep cows comfortable during hot spells.”

Some of the challenges in tie stall housing are that the caregiver goes to the cows rather than cows being handled in groups. Individual tying and untying is sometimes viewed as a nuisance, and there’s a possibility of higher labor requirements, especially with larger cow numbers.

Like Dechow, McFarland pointed out public perception as a potential issue for tie stall barns. “If you’re thinking about building a new tie stall barn, one of the questions is ‘what does your milk market think – is it something that’s going to be allowed in the future with who you’re selling milk to?’”

For any type of housing, the primary objective is satisfying the cows’ needs. McFarland said the more time the cow spends in the stall, the more generous the stall size and structure must be. Since cows don’t have a choice about where to go, it’s up to the caretaker to provide good air quality in all seasons, access to feed and water and good healthcare. The plan should also include time for unrestricted movement and regular exercise.

For cows housed in tie stall barns, there are several options for outdoor exercise. Unpaved lots can include pasture of various sizes to fit herd needs. McFarland said one of the most important aspects for any exercise area is confident, non-skid footing during all seasons. “If cows are going to be there for more than one hour, we should provide good access to water,” he said. “Provide a paved apron around the water so it doesn’t get chewed up, especially if it’s unpaved. If cows are going to be there for more than three hours, there should be feed available. Also provide shade during hot weather to reduce stress.”

McFarland outlines the recommended dimensions for a tie stall barn with cows facing outward, the most common tie stall barn arrangement. “The cross section of the building out-to-out is about 42 feet wide with a 9’3” minimum clearance,” he said. “Whether it’s mechanically or naturally ventilated, we’d like to see more volume in the building to provide better air quality.” McFarland said nine feet feed delivery alleys from the inside wall to the feed side of the front curb of the stall allow ample access for the feeding vehicle and also allows for storing feed or hay bales along the outside wall. From curb to curb should measure roughly 22 feet to provide good access for stall length, gutter and central alley.

The goal in any new construction is to end up with a better structure that improves cow comfort. “Productive cows are the ones most affected by comfort or lack of it,” said McFarland. “We want to provide excellent air quality with respect to moisture, gases and pollutants in the air; a dry, comfortable resting area; good access to feed and water; and confident footing.”

New construction should also consider the caregiver, and provide the ability to observe and access to cows; simple sorting, isolation and restraint; convenient feed delivery; efficient manure collection and removal; the ability to keep stalls bedded and clean; and a safe place for caregivers to work.

A dairy cow in free stall housing spends about 75% of her time eating and resting and about 10% outside of the pen (milking). “Tie stalls have an advantage in that they provide more time in the stall,” said McFarland. “Cows have more opportunity to eat and they’re not competing as much for feed as they would be in loose housing. They may also have the advantage of more resting time.”

McFarland said much of what has been learned about the genetics of cows housed in free stalls can be applied to tie stalls. “Cows in free stalls have the opportunity to tell us by their actions what they like and don’t like,” he said. “We can apply that to some of the things about tie stall housing. That comes in mainly with the resting area – we look at stall size, structure, bedding and management, learn the lessons from free stalls and apply them to tie stalls.”