Providing a dry, comfortable resting area for dairy cattle is essential to their heath, well being and performance. Cows typically rest 10 to 14 hours per day in five or more resting bouts.

Well-designed and managed freestalls can reduce excessive standing, allow more efficient rumination, improve cleanliness and minimize injury. Unfortunately, many freestall designs have favored reduced maintenance and lower cost over cow requirements and comfort. Often, poor stall acceptance, unnecessary stress, injury and dirty conditions are the result.

Most existing freestalls can be improved to better meet the needs of productive dairy cows. Some may only require minor adjustments, while others may need major structural modification. In either case, time spent studying the needs of the cows, observing successful examples and making the necessary changes is well worth the effort.

Improving freestall dimensions
Select dimensions that suit the largest cows in the group.

Stalls should be long enough to allow comfortable resting postures and adequate space for forward lunging. To comfortably lunge forward when rising, cows require approximately 30 to 44 inches ahead of their front knee location when resting.


•Stall rows along outside walls:

-Remove obstacles to lunging at wall.

-Frame a sloping adjustable sidewall curtain support beyond the outside wall line that provides necessary additional length at stall level to allow forward lunging.

• Head-to-head and inside stall rows:

-Remove lunge barriers and modify stall support structure at stall front so there are no obstacles higher than 6 inches above the stall surface, and provide a minimum vertical clearance of 32 inches.

Stall dividers should be spaced to encourage the cows to enter, recline, rest, rise and exit without striking them abruptly. Suggested stall width dimensions are typically given from the center of one divider to the center of the next. Therefore, the actual width of the stall is the suggested width minus the diameter of a stall divider.

•Typical freestall width for “large frame” dairy cattle is 48 to 52 inches.
•Dry cows may require 2 to 4 inches of additional width due to their “plus-size.”

Curb height
Curb height can determine how willing cows are to use the freestalls. The main concern is the cow’s ability to exit the stall. As cows step off of the stall bed, they must support a significant amount of weight with one rear leg as she lowers the other to find the alley surface. This can be painful for moderately to severely lame cows.

•Maximum height from alley to stall surface should be 12 inches, although 8 inches is preferred.

Improving the freestall structure
Cows should be able to enter and exit the stall without striking the stall structure. The stall structure should encourage cows to use the resting area readily. The framework surrounding the stalls should accommodate the natural reclining, resting and rising motion of the cows using them.

Stall divider
The purpose of the stall divider is to encourage cow position in the resting area to reduce injury and promote cleanliness. There seems to be an infinite number of types and configurations available. The best designs encourage cows to lie parallel to the stall length and allow both forward and side lunging (when necessary).

Neck rail
The purpose of the neck rail is to encourage the cows to preserve lunge space, not to keep the stall bed clean. It should be located so cows can step comfortably onto the stall bed. Cows do not crawl into stalls; they lie down on them. Therefore, each cow needs to get all four feet onto the stall bed before they can start their rocking motion and recline.

Positioned properly, the neck rail will allow the largest cow in the group to stand on the stall surface with her back level, legs squarely placed beneath her and the top of her neck gently touching the neck rail.

•Typical neck rail location for “large frame” dairy cattle:

–Vertical clearance from stall bed to bottom of neck rail – 46 to 50 inches

–Horizontal location from alley side of rear curb – 68 to 70 inches

A number of methods using wood blocks, box steel, welded pipe fixtures and clamps are used to raise existing neck rails to current recommended height without moving the stall divider.

Brisket locator
The purpose of the brisket locator is to discourage forward movement when a cow is resting to preserve lunge space and minimize the chance of striking the stall structure when rising.

It should allow the largest cow in the group to comfortably rest on the stall surface. It should also allow cows to extend their front leg(s) forward when resting, and step forward to rise.

•Typical brisket locator position for “large frame” dairy cattle:

–Brisket locator height: 4 to 6 inches above stall surface

–Horizontal dimension to cow side of brisket locator:

•Mattress or mat stall base: from rear edge of mattress or mat: 68 to 72 inches

•Generously bedded stalls: from cow side of rear curb: 68 to 72 inches

Improving the stall bed
The stall bed should conform to the shape of the cow when resting, provide cushion to absorb shock when rising and reclining, have adequate traction to prevent slipping and be dry to encourage cleanliness and good udder health. There are several alternatives that provide a suitable resting surface, and each has their own advantages and disadvantages. Select the alternative that provides the best benefit for the cows and the disadvantages you can work with.

Stall bed alternatives
•Generously bedded

Typically a minimum of 4 inches of inorganic or organic bedding material. Generally seem to be the best accepted by dairy cows but require very good stall maintenance and grooming to be successful.

•Fabric-covered mattresses

Popular alternatives contain crumb rubber, foam or water filler material. These alternatives do not replace bedding but may reduce the total amount compared to generously bedded stalls.

•Soft resilient mats

A relatively new alternative that is available in sizes either for single stalls or the entire stall row. The best choices provide a suitable degree of comfort with adequate bedding. With use, most “soft” mats will tend to expand in width and length. Therefore, proper installation and trimming may be necessary at times.

Bedding should be added regularly to help keep surface dry, provide additional comfort, and reduce abrasions.

Inorganic bedding materials (i.e. sand and ground limestone) tend to drain moisture away from the resting surface. They typically do not support the growth of pathogens that may cause udder infection. Inorganic bedding materials can be a concern in cold weather since they have little insulating value and can draw heat away from the resting cow.

Organic bedding materials (i.e. sawdust, straw, shavings, etc.) absorb moisture to help dry the stall surface. Since it can support the growth of pathogens, diligent handling, storage and management is necessary.

Improving freestall management
Suggested freestall dimensions, stall structure details and preferred stall bed alternatives are based on several years of experience, observation and evaluation of freestall success and failure. The best evaluators of freestall performance, however, are cows. Regular observation of stall acceptance and use is necessary. Adjustments to the stall structure or stall management may be needed to realize the desired results.

•Periods of high stall use are typically observed early in the morning and two hours after returning from the milking area. Acceptance of 90 percent or more at these times is desired.

•Perching (standing half in/half out) usually indicates improper neck rail placement.

•Standing in stall with head above neck rail usually indicates improper neck rail placement.

•Diagonal resting is often caused by improper neck rail or brisket locator placement.

•Hock injuries generally result from inadequate body space on stall bed, hard stall surface or inadequate bedding.

Stall grooming
Manure and wet spots should be removed from the stall bed and dry bedding replaced at least three times per day.

Generously bedded stalls may need to be leveled two times per week.

•Bedding frequency

Inorganic material is typically added once per week. Organic material (especially on mattress and mats) should be added every one to three days. Bedding frequency can vary with the season. Add bedding based on cow needs rather than the calendar.

•Bedding management

Bedding material should move from head to tail end of the stall. After removing soiled bedding from the rear of the stall, add fresh bedding to the area where the udder will touch when the cow lies down. Organic material absorbs moisture and can support pathogen growth during its time in the animal area. Resist the temptation to push bedding from the rear to the front of the stall to get another day’s use.

•Alley cleaning

The cleaner the cow alley, the lower the amount of manure that will be tracked into the stall as cows enter. Keep in mind that the first step the cow takes in the stall is in the area that the udder and teats will come in contact with.


A good air exchange will remove moisture from the building and help keep the stall and floor surfaces drier. Adjust the ventilation system to control moisture, gas and pollutant levels throughout the animal area.

Many existing freestalls can be modified to contain the features of successful modern designs. The basic features freestalls should contain are:

•Cows should be able to enter and exit the stall without striking the stall structure.

•Select dimensions and component locations based on the largest cows in the group.

•Remove lunging barriers that interfere with natural rising and reclining motion of cows.

•Stall bed should conform to the shape of a resting cow, provide cushion and prevent slipping when rising and reclining.

•Bedding should be added regularly to help keep surface dry, provide additional comfort and reduce abrasions.

•Remove manure and wet spots from stalls and cover cleaned areas with bedding at least three times per day. PD

References omitted but are available upon request at

—Excerpts from 2007 Kentucky Dairy Conference Proceedings