Consumers continue to pressure the dairy industry for facility improvements that promote natural animal behaviors, including freedom of movement and socialization, and researchers are learning how to adapt dairy facilities to reflect those desires.

“Recommended practices on dairy farms are constantly evolving, shaped by new technology, science and practical experience,” says Cornell University’s Kimberley Morrill, Ph.D., regional dairy specialist for the North Country Regional Ag Team with Cooperative Extension.

Maternity pen

Cows isolating themselves for calving is one example of natural behavior. Dr. Katy L. Proudfoot, assistant professor in the college of veterinary medicine at Ohio State University, conducted a ground-breaking study while a Ph.D. student at the University of British Columbia. Her work may change the layout of maternity pens to better allow for natural maternal behavior.

maternity pen

“Indoor housed dairy cows preferred to use a secluded calving site,” reports Proudfoot. But even a maternity pen that separates a cow from the herd immediately before birth may be located in a high-traffic area of the barn.

“I have worked with producers who simply put up corrugated metal or curtains between these pens and high-traffic areas of the barn,” she says. “Straw bales in a group calving pen can create an opportunity for separation.” Also, consider attaching plywood sheets in corners. Although a maternity pen should not be completely closed off, the hiding area should allow cows to enter and exit easily without creating a dead end.


Calf housing

While most commercial dairies in the U.S. house pre-weaned calves in individual hutches, research suggests there are benefits to group housing. Laura Whalin, a graduate student working with Dr. Marina A.G. von Keyserlingk, professor at the University of British Columbia, studied a practical way to pair house calves on commercial farms.

calf pens

Whalin offered calves two identical hutches with a shared outdoor space. Compared to individually housed calves, paired calves ate more concentrate and were less fearful. “Pair housing sets the heifer up for easier transitions such as moving to new pens, changing diets, or learning to cope with an automatic milking system,” Whalin explains.

“When moving to social housing, we recommend producers consider first moving to pair housing,” von Keyserlingk says. “Pair housing can be easily incorporated on farms, as most individual housing systems can be easily modified.” Removing the divider between two pens or moving two hutches adjacent to each other can be accomplished with limited labor and expense.

Arguments often cite health concerns as a disadvantage to pair housing. Clay Kesterson, calf specialist at the East Tennessee Research and Education Center for the University of Tennessee, measured acquired immunity in pair-housed calves.

“We did not see a difference in immunity of calves,” Kesterson says. “If you manage calves well, group or pair housing can be done without negative effects.”

Cow comfort facilities

Joseph Harner, professor and department head of biological and agricultural engineering at Kansas State University, is considered by peers to be an expert in barn design, especially those with cross-ventilated systems. “I see dairies going back to managing 120 cows grouped in one pen,” he shares.

Harner stresses the importance of automation and cow comfort regardless of housing design. “More new dairies today are incorporating automated feed push-ups along with parlor automation,” Harner says. When the focus is on cow comfort, simple changes such as additional bedding, increased cleaning and better ventilation can make a big difference. “In the future, the industry has to focus on alternative surface designs to address leg issues and decrease lameness.”

The National Dairy FARM Animal Care Program administered by the National Milk Producers Federation is an excellent resource. “In chapter seven of our current Animal Care Reference Manual (, we share resources for facility design for all facility types,” explains Emily Yeiser Stepp, senior director of FARM. “We also encourage dairymen to establish relationships with veterinarians, extension specialists, ag engineers and others with expertise in facility design and cow comfort.”

“We have many farmers who have made renovations to their tiestall facilities to increase width and length of stalls, change tie rail height and add mattresses,” Morrill says. “We even have some farms that have been able to renovate their old stalls to have deep-bedded sand.”

“When best management practices are followed, cow comfort is similar across housing systems,” Morrill says.

Grazing aids

Pasture acreage is on the rise for many dairies due to grazing requirements for organic milk production. With 120 acres of pasture, Francis Thicke, owner of Radiance Dairy in Fairfield, Iowa, rotates his 90 cows to new grass twice a day after each milking. A mobile shade structure helps him manage cow comfort and soil fertility at his organic dairy.

“I put the cows in paddocks without trees during hot, sunny days and locate [the shade] wherever the pasture needs extra fertility,” Thicke says. “That is the main reason I bought the portable shade, to manage where the cows deposit their manure for soil fertility reasons.” Providing shade for dairy cattle also improves animal health, conception rates and milk production.

“With the current technology in smartphones, we can locate positions on-site and pinpoint where to set corners,” says Randy Cutler, owner of Cutler Fence in Milladore, Wisconsin. Cutler is one of the state’s leading experts on fencing for rotational grazing.

New post design

“GPS systems help accurately estimate distances,” Cutler says. “New fencepost design has increased the longevity of permanent fence. High-quality poly wire, geared reels and newly designed step-in posts allow farmers to quickly and easily move animals to fresh grass.”


“Dairy farmers are innovative in their use of data from technology,” says Amber Adams-Progar, dairy management specialist for Washington State University. The Washington State animal scientist concluded a two-year study on estrous detection using the cow behavior monitoring system, CowManager, to identify changes in behavior and temperatures.

“I see a renewed interest in activity monitors used to identify changes in cow behavioral patterns to detect heat and changes in health,” Adams-Progar says. “The system, for example, has become reliable enough for some dairy farmers to feel comfortable breeding animals off heat alerts alone.”

“Animal welfare and sustainability has always been a concern for the dairy industry,” Harner adds. “Dairymen are more aware of accountability issues than ever before when considering new facilities or making capital investments.”

Technology offers new ways to accomplish even basic tasks every day. Whether planning for expansion or simply making updates to existing facilities, new design developments provide food for thought.  end mark

PHOTO 1: Wedel Grazing Acres, Kyle Wedel’s farm in Riceville, Iowa, uses the shade to improve cow comfort. Photo courtesy of Shade Haven. 

PHOTO 2: The maternity pen design used in Proudfoot’s study. Photo by Katy Proudfoot, Ohio State University.

PHOTO 3: Practical ways of converting to pair housing of calves include removing dividers or moving hutches adjacent to each other in a shared pen. Photo by Laura Whalin.

PHOTO 4: Experimental bracing, new post design, poly wire, geared reels and step-in posts are being used throughout Wisconsin as pasture acreage grows. Photo by Randy Cutler.

Karena Elliott is an international freelance writer who specializes in the agriculture industry. She makes her home in Amarillo, Texas.