There are two important parts to free stalls. One is the neck rail. The purpose of the neck rail is that, when a cow stands up, the rail positions her so that it touches the top of her shoulder, guiding her to back up a couple of inches so she will defecate in the ally.
The next important part of the free stall is the brisket locator. The brisket locator positions the cow so that she doesn’t lie down too far forward in the stall.
When we measure stalls, we want to see stalls that are long and wide. Today, we have bigger cows, especially when we consider the Holstein breed. Our goal is to see stalls that, when measured from curb to curb, are between 17–18 feet wide to allow personal space for the cows. When measuring stall width, we measure what the cow feels. We do not measure from the center of the loop to the center of the next loop; we measure from inside to inside of the loop. With our bigger cows, we should be around 50 inches, not at 45 inches, which I see in many barns. For these larger cows, the neck rail should be around 50 inches high as well.
Next, we want to avoid obstruction. Horizontal obstructions are often seen in older barns and affect the cow’s ability to get straight up and straight down. If we watch a cow out in the pasture as she gets up naturally, she rocks her head forward toward the ground, puts one front foot forward, planting herself to stand up straight. When obstructions are in their “rising,” they will do everything they can to use the valuable inches of space. I like to say that cows know geometry — they figure out how to use angles in the stall to get the most use out of the space they are provided. If the stall is too narrow, or too short, the cow will naturally angle herself in the stall.
If we see cows standing with two feet in the stall and two feet out of the stall, we call that “perching,” and this is not good. We want the cows to come into the stall and lie down immediately. We want them off their feet because these are 1,400- to 1,600-pound animals. They should be comfortable and lying down because more blood is pumped through the udder to make milk when they are lying down versus standing up.
When considering stall design, we need to be sure to look directly at the cows themselves. When you look at a cow, you want to see a very nice set of feet and legs. While in the parlor, if I see swollen hocks, skinned hocks or injuries on the inside of the leg of the animal, that tells me that the stalls are too short and too narrow and the type of surface that the cow is lying on may be having a negative effect on her legs. Consider yourself: If you’re in a hotel and the bed is not comfortable, what do you do? You toss and you turn. When a 1,400- to 1,600-pound animal is not comfortable in the stall, she is moving her legs, tossing and turning in the stall, leading to swollen and skinned hocks.
When we see an injury on the inside of the leg, that tells me that the stall is too short and her leg is hanging over the curb.
These are very important aspects of cow comfort that we can observe in the parlor before we even look at the cow in the free stalls.
When we talk about overall milk quality and cow comfort, another critical component is water. Over 87 percent of milk composition is water.
When I am looking at the stalls, I also spend time examining the waterers. Are the waterers clean and scrubbed? Are we doing a good job of protecting the waterers?
I always like to see a high rail around the water so cows can’t jump up and put their feet in the waterer. We want the distance between the edge of the water and the edge of the wall to be over 12 feet so the “big boss” cows can be drinking water and other cows can go around behind them to eat and lie down. Plenty of clean water is very important, and it must be enough for the number of cows. Cows can consume between 30–50 gallons of water per day. Providing enough available space of water for the number of cows, approximately 3 feet of available water area per 10–15 cows, is important to milk production.
Air quality, or the movement of air over the cows, is another very important part of cow comfort in a free stall building, a cross-ventilated building and a natural-ventilated building.
When measuring stalls, I check what the wind speed is, or how good the air quality is moving through the building. Smoke is a great tool for showing the air movement through the building, but cows do not like smoke and can smell it up to 5 miles away. So, instead of smoke, I go to my grandkids’ toy box and find a little bubble machine. This little bubble machine gives me a good indication of which way and how fast the airflow is moving in the building. Plus, the curious cows seem amused by the bubbles!