Troubleshooting and Evaluating Cow Comfort on Dairy Operations



Nigel B. Cook MRCVS

Clinical Assistant Professor in Food Animal Production Medicine

University of Wisconsin-Madison

School of Veterinary Medicine




There is currently much interest in improving cow comfort and the health and welfare of our dairy cows. This paper will address the cow’s needs with respect to her physical comfort, the final determinant of which is daily lying time. Appropriate targets for daily lying time must come from studies of dairy cow behavior in an unencumbered, comfortable environment. Singh et al. (1994), studying resting time for cows housed in deep straw bedded yards, suggested that 10 hours per day should be considered adequate lying time. More recently, Phillips and Rind (2001) monitoring cows at pasture, found lying times of 10.9 to 11.5 hours per day.


A daily lying time of around 11 hours would therefore be considered an appropriate target.


What factors affect lying time?


Daily lying times will be influenced by a number of animal, environmental and management factors. These include parity, stage of lactation, milk yield and times milked per day, health status, stocking rate, heat activity, social position, daily human interactions with the cow, temperature, stall design and comfort. These interactions are reviewed by Cook (2003) in these proceedings. Collecting daily lying time data requires specialized equipment and a great deal of time and effort. For that reason, it is rarely done on farm. Instead, assessments of cow comfort are made using various indices related to stall usage.


Indices of Cow Comfort


Health care consultants have used various indices as predictors of daily lying time and cow comfort. Overton et al. (2003) recently summarized the use of three indices of cow comfort:


* Proportion Lying

Number lying / Number in pen

* Proportion Eligible Lying

Number lying / Number in pen not eating

* Cow Comfort Index

Number lying / Number touching a stall surface (lying + 4 feet + 2 feet)


Data from a single herd, with sand freestalls, milked 3 times per day in California, filmed between 3AM and 10PM, showed peak numbers lying one hour after the return of cows to the pen from the morning milking. At this time, the Cow Comfort Index should exceed 85% and the proportion eligible lying should be more than 75%. Unfortunately, data from herds with poor comfort are not currently available to further develop benchmark targets for these indices.


Cook (2002), in a survey of 15 freestall herds in Wisconsin, found a significant difference in Cow Comfort Index, taken one hour before either the AM or PM milking, between barns utilizing sand bedding and those with other types of stall surface – suggesting either a difference in stall comfort, or a difference in cow behavior relative to the stall surface.


Palmer and Wagner-Storch (2003) have recently shown in a stall occupancy study, that time spent lying on Pasture Mat® stalls was similar to sand stalls, but time spent standing on the mattress stall was longer than on the sand stall. Increased time spent standing in the stall, instead of standing in the alley may carry with it some health benefits and distort the Cow Comfort Index unfairly. However, if cows stand in the stall for long periods instead of lying in the stall, then clearly this produces a worsening in the Cow Comfort Index and reflects a problem with cow comfort.


Unfortunately, there is still little data to support the use of indices of cow comfort and care is needed when interpreting the results.


Other Monitors of Comfort


The prevalence of hock abrasions may give some indication of stall comfort. Cows struggling to get into a position to stand up on a firm surface with poor divider design will have to drag their lower rear leg over the stall surface in order to rise. Contact of skin against inadequately bedded rubber, or textured surface will lead to loss of hair and surface abrasion over the lateral aspect of the hock. Medial hock lesions maybe seen in narrow short stalls, where the upper leg hangs in the alleyway, especially in dug out sand stalls – where the medial side of the hock is suspended over the edge of the curb. The curb may also rub on the point of the calcaneus in a dug out sand stall, creating a hock abrasion unique to this situation.


Mattresses carry a much greater risk of hock damage than sand stall surfaces. In one study, 91% of cows on mattresses and only 24% of cows on sand had evidence of hock abrasion (Weary and Tazskun, 2000). Sand bedding may prevent hock damage by providing conforming support around bony prominences without causing surface abrasion.


In addition to stall surface, the design of the stall is extremely important in determining its final usage. Any assessment of cow comfort must include a methodical approach to critiquing stall design, as it pertains to a cow stepping into, lying down, rising and leaving it. The remainder of this paper will deal with one such assessment system developed by Nordlund and Cook (2002).


Stall Assessment


We need to consider five main critical areas:


* Adequacy of stall surface cushion

* A defined resting area of appropriate size related to the type of animal

* Adequate room for lunging and an unobstructed “bob zone”

* Adequate height below and behind the neck-rail to rise without hindrance

* A curb height no higher than eight inches


1. Adequacy of Surface Cushion.


The most important factor determining stall usage is surface cushion. Cows appear to tolerate many inadequacies of design to lie on a cushioned surface. Work by Wandel et al. (2002) showed daily lying times increase with increasing surface cushion in the same stall and Gebremedhin et al. (1985) demonstrated a cow preference for a deep soil bed over a rubber mat or concrete. Palmer (unpublished) has shown a cow preference over rubber mats for the most cushioned mattresses – containing foam, rather than packed rubber. Sand carries considerable potential benefits with regard to its use – giving cushion, conforming support and traction without abrasion. There is however a paucity of data with respect to lying times and cow use in sand stalls, and much of what has been published suggests other surfaces perform as well or better (Palmer and Wagner-Storch, 2003; Tucker et al., 2003). Mean daily lying times obtained by the author from cows housed in well managed sand stall facilities exceed those from cows in mattress facilities, suggesting a disparity between field collected information and data gathered in a restrictive research setting. Poorly maintained sand stalls can be a disaster for cows, and the handling of sand laden manure is also problematic. Dug out stalls do not provide the necessary surface cushion to attract the cow and there will also be associated lunging problems, related to changes in the relative height of the divider rails.


The keys to successful sand management are:


* Using washed, screened and graded sand – to remove soil and rocks and to make the particle size uniform

* Maintaining the sand level at a minimum depth of 6 inches by adding fresh sand weekly and leveling daily.

* Making sure that stall dividers are correctly mounted to allow for side lunging if needed

* Providing a settling pit with easy tractor access to remove sand from the main lagoon


Sand maybe used in a stanchion/tie stall barn to good effect by mounting a 3” PVC pipe bedding retainer across the rear lip of the stall. This will retain approximately 2-4” of sand on the stall surface. Although this is insufficient to provide for optimal surface cushion, perhaps the success of this stall modification is due to improved surface traction, making it easier for the cow to stand and lie in the stall.


2. A Defined Resting Area of Adequate Size


Anderson (2002) suggests sizing stalls to the largest 25% of cows in the herd, providing these cows with sufficient room to use the stalls. The fear of many farmers is the problem of maintaining adequate standards of hygiene. We therefore suggest that if the farm aims to pen heifers separately and provide accommodation for transition cows in the barn, stalls should be designed to meet their respective sizes.


We have developed regression equations from several published articles on freestall design to give appropriate dimensions for width, length from curb to brisket board, total length for a full forward lunge and height below the neck-rail (Table 1).


Table 1. Regression equations for the calculation of stall dimensions and neck rail placement in inches from body weight in lbs (Nordlund and Cook, 2002)




Stall width (inches)

0.018 (Body weight) + 21.9

Resting length to brisket board (inches)

0.0224 (Body weight) + 34.2

Total stall length for forward lunge (inches)

0.0405 (Body weight) + 41

Height of lower surface of neck rail (inches)

0.0136 (Body weight) + 26.4


Tie stalls are typically being built with 72” long and 54” wide beds. Provided stalls are bedded frequently and cow trainers are located appropriately, 48” from the gutter curb and 2” above the backline of the cow (moving to 4” once the cow is trained), stall hygiene management has not been a major cause of concern.


A brisket board that has a rounded edge and protrudes above the bed no higher than 6” can be used to prevent the cow lying too far forward on a freestall bed. We need to allow the cow to put her front leg forward when she lies down and when she completes the rising motion, so the board must be no higher than this. In some herds with sand bedding and high neckrails, these boards have been completely removed with apparent little ill effect.


3. Adequate room for Lunge and Bob


The modern Holstein cow needs a space of at least 9 feet from tail to chin in order to lunge forward and rise without hindrance. In head to head stalls, the cow can borrow from the space in front, but against a solid wall, if the stall is shorter than 9 feet long, she must side lunge to get up. For side lunging to occur, we must choose a wide loop divider, with the lower rail of the divider no higher than 11” off the surface of the stall, where the brisket board meets the bed. Some of the biggest stall disasters we see are where a narrow loop divider, with a lower rail around 18” above the stall surface is used in a short stall (Figure 1). Cows commonly become entrapped as they shuffle forward on the bed and attempt to rise over a lower section of side rail. A similar problem may present when sand stalls are poorly maintained and the relative height of the divider rail increases as the surface erodes away.


Figure 1. This stall is 7’6” long against the wall. The lower rail of the narrow loop divider is 18” off the stall surface at the level of the brisket board. This cow shuffled forward on the bed to lunge over the lower section of side rail, only to find the neck rail in the way.





If we closely study the mechanics of rising in the cow, elegantly shown in Figure 2 from the illustrations by Schnitzer (1971), we will see that she uses the front legs as a fulcrum on which to balance, transferring weight from the rear legs so that they may be moved. To achieve this weight transfer, the chin must almost touch the ground in an area we call the “bob zone”.


Figure 2. Notice how low the chin has to go for the cow to achieve balance over the knees – which act as a fulcrum, taking weight off the hind legs as the cow rises. (from Schnitzer, 1971).



















We frequently see obstructions in the bob zone – stored bedding, mounting rails and concrete, all of which we believe impact stall usage. The cow will rise awkwardly with her chin in the air. Complete transfer of weight will not be achieved, meaning that the rear legs may slip away from under the cow, creating fear associated with rising and lying, which ultimately reduces stall use. Freestall dividers should be mounted on vertical posts, not on horizontal mounting rails in front of the stall. This is more expensive, but the cost is insignificant compared to the losses from poor stall use.


Figure 3. This cow hits her chin on the divider mounting rail located 10” off the stall surface and 7’6” from the rear curb.




In stanchion / tie stall barns the feed alley is usually raised above the stall surface. In order to avoid problems with lunge and bob obstruction, the feed curb should be no higher than 8” above the stall surface and the feed bunk raised no more than 4” above the stall surface level. In tie stalls, longer neck chains 34 – 38” long allow more freedom to lunge, but the head rail must be moved up to 48” above the stall surface, and located 8” forward of the feed bunk side of the feed curb. Stanchions will seriously impact rising and lying motion in all cows – especially those that are lame.


4. Location of the Neck rail


The cow should have enough room to rise behind and below the neck rail unhindered. The best location is immediately over the brisket board. Behavior studies have shown that by moving neckrails higher and forward, cows can stand with all four feet on the stalls more easily (Gaworski et al., 2003). If the rail is incorrectly located, the cows will tell us, by rubbing the rail every time they rise in the stall. We will also see more cows perching in the stalls, with only two feet located on the platform.


Diagonal lying relates to neck rail placement, and lunge and bob room. Diagonal lying results from cows lunging diagonally across the stall to rise and lie down. They will do this if:


* There is a bob zone obstruction in front of the stall

* There is a cow in the stall in front

* The neck rail is located too near the rear curb. Large cows must stand diagonally on the bed to lie down.


Ironically, stalls become contaminated with manure while the cow lies across the stall – locating the fecal pat below the divider (Fig 4). Farmers see this as a neck rail problem, believing that the contamination occurs when the cow is standing in the stall, and in response they move the neck rails nearer the rear curb!


Figure 4. Front lunging in this wide loop stall is inhibited by a lower horizontal mounting bar. This tends to make cows lie diagonally across the bed, forcing her to side-lunge.




5. Curb Height


Typical curb height in the US is around 10”. We believe that too high a curb reduces stall use by heifers and stretches rear flexor tendons of cows standing half in and half out of stalls. Both high curbs and perching behavior have been linked with increased lameness in several studies. Curbs should be no higher than 8” above the alley, a height which includes the mattress surface.


In tie stalls, gutter grids prevent cows from putting their feet into deep manure, improve the use of short stalls by larger cows and generally help keep the cows cleaner.




Cow comfort is critical to the success of any farm, the cost of getting stall design wrong is enormous and correcting problems is a frightening prospect in many cases. Even now, we still see brand new installations with major design faults, which do not allow for the cow’s needs for rest and rising room.


If we can look at stall use through the eyes of the cow, we can solve many of the health issues related to stall design and make recommendations that will avoid problems developing. It seems ridiculous that farmers actually tie “stupid heifers” into stalls at night to “make” them use them! Perhaps we should listen to and act upon the heifer’s grievances. We should build barns that maximize cow health and productivity, not for the best way to manage manure. We can go a long way to achieving acceptable standards of cow comfort, lameness and welfare, while still having a system that is manageable for the farmer at a cost that will be acceptable to everyone, including the cow!





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