Freestall barn design really does matter. If anyone has doubts, dairyman Russ Kelly of Glenvue Farms in Fultonville, New York, can help clarify the results of moving his cows into a freestall facility designed with their needs in mind.
Kelly spoke recently at the Central New York Dairy Day, where the focus “Cow Comfort – Money You’re Leaving on the Table?” included tiestall and freestall comfort issues.
“Generations of tradition not interrupted by progress” is how Kelly described the status quo of many dairy farms. He urged others to examine their operations, particularly where cow comfort is concerned. Improving facilities has positively impacted production and herd health on his farm, and made daily operations less burdensome and more efficient.
Problems with Kelly’s old freestall facility began with wet stalls and ended with ventilation issues. Small stall sizing, suboptimal bedding and overcrowding made cow comfort difficult to maintain. The old freestall barn measured 17 feet at the peak, with sidewalls at 8 feet in height. A lot of sand, on a base of concrete, was used for bedding. The environment wasn’t working for the cows or the farmer.
“Ventilation was terrible,” Kelly said. Cows were “barely able to stand in the stalls,” which were too short, forcing the cows to keep their legs outside of the stall. This increased injury and reduced lying times.
The new facility has 200 stalls, with 100 stalls per side. The 14-foot sidewalls and curtain ventilation are a vast improvement, and “air moves through them great,” Kelly said. The increased sidewall height allows airflow in the barn, promoting a healthier environment and helping to cool cows. There are also several sets of fans. The farm no longer sees a pronounced drop in summer milk production.
The new barn design, complete with large alleyways and roomy stalls, has definitely impacted productivity. The outside walls are 9 feet to the curb, while stalls are 17 feet with the cows head-to-head, efficiently offering increased lunging space. Deep-bedded sand stalls without brisket boards, with just enough curb on the back, are easy for the cows to access. Not only are they long enough for the cows to lie in comfortably, they are also wide enough.
The cows were “very rarely seen” lying down in the old barn. In the new barn, the cows lie longer in the stalls, which is the best indication of comfort. The improvement in cow comfort has been very noticeable, and happened immediately upon moving cows to the new freestall facility.
“They’ve got plenty of room,” Kelly said. “We’ve picked up 6 to 8 pounds immediately,” simply by moving cows to the new facility.
Alleys, too, are improved in the new barn. Kelly has a rubber mat on the floor in the feed alley, covering the entire alley, not just a strip. He believes this has added to cow health and comfort, and increased intake.
The old barn had been overstocked. With more cow space, the new barn reduced social stress and lessened feedbunk competition, both of which played a role in production increases, too, he said. Adding a new milking parlor led to less time spent milking, despite the production increases.
Kelly also switched management groups when he moved to the new barn. He now groups by lactation, with three groups: first-calf heifers; second and third lactation cows; and mature cows. Previously, he used high/low groupings.
The increased debt load that Kelly incurred when building his new facility was partially offset by the milk production increase. Less cow health concerns – the cows aren’t injured from too-small stalls, while rubber mats, increased ventilation and other environmental changes keep the animals healthier – means less veterinary expense.
Kelly moved his cows into the “new” freestall barn in 2008. At that time, a lot of his decisions were “out of the box,” he said. But those decisions paid off.
Today, Kelly is again finding himself overstocked. The farm – as well as the cows – is once again ready for expansion. Luckily, he planned ahead, and his barn can easily be added onto to accommodate the needs of the expanded herd. PD
Tamara Scully, a freelance writer based in northwestern New Jersey, specializes in agricultural and food system topics.
PHOTO 1: A new barn with longer stalls has made a big difference in cow comfort, resulting in fewer injuries and a boost in milk production.
PHOTO 2: Russ Kelly of Glenvue Farms knew that cow comfort needed to be improved in his old freestall barn as cows could no longer fit in the stalls. Photos provided by Russ Kelly.