Designing your own freestall cow bed

We have had interest from many people recently in our freestall design for our cows.  Below, we will outline what a freestall is, why we prefer freestall bedding, other bedding options (including pros/cons), and detailed images to assist you in building your own. Bear in mind, we went from a 100 milking cow dairy down to a 4 milking cow homestead, so we will give various options for designs depending on your capacity. (And if you just want the how-to without all the commentary, skip to the bottom of this article for step-by-step directions.)

First, what is a freestall and why do we prefer them? A freestall is a type of “bed” for a cow to sleep on. Cows are free to come and go from the bed and it does not allow them to turn around, they must stand up and back out, which prevents them from soiling their bedding (meaning, a huge savings on bedding cost AND the cows stay very clean).

Nap time in a free stall
Nap time in a free stall

Other types of “beds” include: tie stalls, box stalls, loafing sheds, or outside in the wild blue yonder. (Yes, I’m sure, there are probably more types of beds, but these are the main styles.)

CoalitionLovelyTie stalls are found generally in the Eastern United States, where a lot of older style barns are still active as dairies. You may travel through Amish country in Pennsylvania and see lots of corn or alfalfa fields, but not many pasturing cows (considering the total number of cows in PA, only a small portion are actually pastured). Tie-stall cows tend to live in a barn the majority of their lives, milked in their stalls, and most get access to a concrete or earthen exercise pad daily, weather permitting. The stalls are divided into individual stalls with a neck strap on the cow that clips to a lower bar. Food is fed to the cows in the front of their stalls. The picture above does not show very well, but there is actually a thick rubber “mattress” that gives the cows cushion over the concrete base. A thin coat of shavings is added to suck up any moisture and provide some additional comfort. Behind the cows is a grate about a foot wide that allows their manure and urine to drop through. A pulley system and water flushes the ditch regularly, limiting the need for manual labor for cleaning.          Negatives to tie-stall design: Cows are locked in, limiting their ability to move freely. They can get sores on their hocks from rubbing on the mattresses and on their upper neck from rubbing on the neck bar while eating. The pads are mostly level, and cows actually prefer to sleep and stand with their front end elevated.

Rizelle 001Box stalls are designed for “special show cows” or elderly cows or as maternity pens. They are very labor intensive, which is why they are NOT popular for everyday use. Good box stalls are at least 12′ x 12′ in dimension (smaller can make do, but are not as practical). They are a dirt or concrete and are a thick (one foot or more) shavings bed or a pack of layered shavings and straw. Straw is less desirable for cows because it tends to not cover manure very well and when cows lie down, they get messier. Straw is better for when a calf is born because the shavings stick to a wet calf whereas the straw provides a nice cushion and can be used to wipe off fluids after birth or poke the calf’s nose to get it breathing. Shavings or straw are continually added and the stalls tend to be deep-cleaned infrequently. (They keep adding shavings to keep the pen dry, until it builds up too high or gets too moisture bound, then they are dug down to the base by pitchfork or tractor and started over.)

Winter 20105Loafing Sheds are similar to box stalls, but multiplied in size. Many cows live in loafing sheds and their designs vary from bare earth to straw bedding to composted bedding that is rototilled daily! Talk about labor! They poop and pee all over the stall. Luckily heifers are little and don’t have to be milked, but when you start getting cows in this type of environment, they end up laying in their manure and it’s a nightmare trying to keep them clean and avoid mastitis. We have visited a few farms that use loafing sheds and the only one I could see as practical was the composted bedding. Again, lots of labor, but the cows were giant Holsteins and the thick fluffy composted bedding was very soft and cushiony for their large frames (plus the composting action of the bacteria actually makes the bedding safer). Another farm we toured, a father and son operated together. The father loved loafing sheds but the son went to a dairy college and learned about freestalls. They both insisted the cows preferred the style they (the humans) did. On our visit, we observed one cow in the loafing shed and several in the freestalls. Why do people use loafing sheds? They are very easy to build. using an existing building or putting up a open shed with a roof is simple and cheap. On the negative side, you end up spending a fortune in time (cleaning) and bedding (replacing daily).

We are using a small barn as a loafing shed for our heifers. Next on our major “to-do” list is to build a mini version of our freestalls for the heifers.

On the big dairy, all heifers lived in free-stalls once they reached the big barn at about 5 months of age. (They were then divided into small sections by age, and by the time they became milk cows, they were already pros at living in a freestall environment.)

13Summer11Some people keep their cows outside year-round. I grew up with beef cattle only, and they always lived outside under trees (fairly happily, except for a few times when the weather was very cold or wet). When I became a “dairy” cattle person, I quickly learned how different dairy are from beef. Granted, no udder should be laying in a wet damp mess. But compound that a dairy cow has soft teats for hand or machine milking combined with a larger udder, much higher production and a body that is built to work off all the outer fat from her body….this creates an animal that demands a higher quality of care if you want to keep her for many years. Do our dairy cows prefer to be outside in good weather? Absolutely! Is it healthier for them? Without a doubt!

But when the rains come and the snow falls and there’s no safe dry place to sleep, the “cows come running home”…

BUILDING DIY FREE STALLS 101

DSC_0884While living on the large dairy, we used the best in freestall design, the majority of our milk cows slept in lunge-style freestalls which are designed to allow a cow to lunge forward and gain momentum to stand up, like she would naturally. You can see in the picture below that style of freestall, which is narrower in one section (you don’t want the cows crawling through the freestalls, and some would if given a chance) and larger toward the head of the stall, allowing for the cow to lay comfortably and stand up easily.

feederstallIn this next picture (below), you can somewhat see (behind our beautiful Zellie cow) a “neck bar” which is placed on the top of the freestall and back a distance which encourages the cow to back up when she stands (because the neck bar essentially gets in the way of her standing comfortably in her stall). The idea is that she will back up just enough to either stand on the curb or step behind the curb, then go to the bathroom in the alley. There are additional bars and supports that can be added to a free stall design depending on the style you go with and you can read further on those added benefits if you click on the reference links below. For our purposes on our farm, the two main important pieces are the neck bar and the curb. (****Cheater note: If you immediately throw hay into the feed bunk before the cows wake up, they will jump up and head straight for the feed and forget they like to poo immediately after waking!)

ZellieSpring09FreestallsWhen we moved to our small homestead, we brought along a few freestalls from the big farm. But somewhere along the way I think the brackets all got used for repair in the big barn, because our bucket of brackets was missing. My husband searched online and contacted dealers, but the expense of official brackets (or custom making new ones) was cost prohibitive for us at the time. So our fancy freestalls sit in the hay barn awaiting the day we might have the money or ingenuity to put them up.

Thinking instead like a (poor) 20th century rural homesteader, we set out to design our own stalls.

Criteria being: that they would be functional, that the cows might actually use them, and that they would not cause injury to the cows in use.

zeliebirth4As you can probably tell, we love our cows (and in this photo, little Zelie the namesake of the grandmother cow in the picture a couple above this picture is being born in our future freestall area).

BarnDimensionsWe started with the basic framework. Because our new home was in a part of the world where snow falls straight down and we get wind only with the changing of the seasons (literally, only a few days per year) we decided to go with an open barn design. This means, we did NOT build solid walls around the barn. When we moved in, there was a 24×48 shop attached to a 24×48 covered roof area with open sides. The enclosed shop is where we keep our tools, grain, semen tank, and the majority of our hay supply. The open barn area is where our cows live and eat.

2012barnThe only modifications we made in the actual function of our barn (above) is that to the left of the hay rack we put in a water trough with heater during the winter months and to the right we put in a permanent box for free choice minerals and salt. The gates actually lead to an outside paddock for the cows to use in the winter months when they are housebound, or as a lay area in the summer if they’ve been brought in due to heat or inclement weather. There is a feeder that my husband designed for outside use that keeps the cows eating outside when they can (which keeps the freestall barn drier and cleaner).

outdoor feederAnyway, back to topic:

STEP BY STEP DESIGN OF FREESTALLS

  1. FreestallBuilt a four foot wall using plywood sheets and poles.
  2. Dig a hole to secure peeled log(s) (cut to the full length of the freestalls) as a curb (half above ground, half under ground) to hold in bedding.
  3. Insert stall dividers at increments suitable to your cow(s) frames. See appendix below for specific dimensions by breed and size. Secure at top and at log curb. Secure additionally with braces.
  4. Dig a 1 foot wide section about 3-6 inches below dirt level behind the entire length of the log curb. Back-fill with washed gravel for drainage. Trust me, even for the little amount that some moisture does get in stalls, this drainage is very effective!
  5. Level the base dirt in the stalls, and then added more dirt (or, see additional options @ #6) to the head of the stall to give the base a slant, for both moisture runoff (say, if a cow backed in and peed in the stall) and to simulate an upward slope, since cows like to keep their front ends higher.
  6. Several options at this point: Sand drains better and is very comfortable, but you have to purchase the sand and the sand is very unstable in that it is so soft it is hard to keep the sand in place, whereas dirt stays right where you put it. Another option would be to build up with dirt, then put a layer of sand maybe 2-4 inches deep on top of the dirt before you bed with shavings. You could also use rubber mattresses on top of the dirt, but I would recommend only using the rubber on the upper half or 2/3rds of the bed (toward the front end of the cow as she is sleeping) because the back gets soiled and the rubber prevents drainage.) Studies indicate cows prefer sleeping on straw or rubber over sand, so even if you use sand for comfort and drainage, consider still topping with shavings. Concrete is a possibility, but is expensive and unforgiving (you better like your stalls exactly as they are, because you’re not easily moving concrete once set!) Plus, I like to remember what my dad once said, “If you wouldn’t like it, why do you think they would?” I do not like sleeping on the floor, but a bed of shavings would be delightful (or, say, a wool mattress would be the human equivalent).
  7. Add neck bar to dividers, about one foot out from the top of the dividers. You might want to put these in loosely and then watch your cows use the stalls for a while and adjust before putting them in permanently.
  8. Top stall with a thick bed of shavings, maintaining a slope from head to base.
  9. Clean stalls every morning and refresh shavings as needed. Our cows tend to not use the stalls during the day (except they like to step up their front feet into the stalls so they can stand high while cudding). A thorough morning cleaning and leveling keeps the stalls in top condition and your cows spic-and-span!
  10. If the stall length is a bit too long or one of your cows is smaller (or older, like my old gal, she likes to poo while laying down…) you may have to scrape out the bedding in the end of the stall, down to the gravel. Top off again with fresh shavings. This should stay dry again a month or more.

APPENDIX:

Determining freestall dimensions based on the needs of YOUR cow:

If you have multiple cows, base your framework either on the size of your larger animal(s) or consider customizing stalls to fit various sizes. Our length is the same for our whole herd, but the width of stalls vary so that our larger Jerseys have a little more room to lay than the smaller ones. The cows tend to each find a “favorite” stall and stick to it.

Useful measurements are:

  • rump height (measure from base of rear leg up to the backbone, you can use a ruler or level to get an accurate measurement)
  • hook bone width (the front bones of a cows hips)
  • nose-to-tail length
  • imprint width (when a cow is laying down, it’s the measurement from the belly on one side to the hock or hoof on the other side, to get an idea how much room a cow needs to lay comfortably on width)
  • lunge space = approx. 22% of resting nose-to-tail length (meaning, you can not make a stall only the length of a cow laying down, it must provide room for her to “lunge” or move forward in motion to stand up.

dimenstionchartFor custom design, consider these calculations:

  • Stall length from curb to solid front = Rump height x 2
  • Stall width (from center of divider) = Hook bone width x 2

Final Notes:

  • The WIDER the stall, the more likely the cow will use the stall, and the more likely the bedding will get soiled.
  • It is best to train heifers how to use (small versions of) freestalls, so that they are pros when the become cows. Training a mature cow to take to a freestall can be difficult, and may require that you tie her in the stall for a night to teach her “here is your bed”. Others take to it instantly. One I have refuses to sleep correctly, she backs in and lays with her head sticking out. Quite hilarious, but we allow it because she is a high class cow that rarely dirties her stall.
  • Observe the cows once your project is complete: Are they using the stalls? Do you notice any cuts or sores that they may be getting from some aspect of the stalls? Is your bedding working correctly?
  • If you are going to go all-out with store bought freestalls, I recommend reading the links below of studies conducted by various universities as to the best designs and dimensions for freestalls.

DSC_0885Ta-da! We did it! The above picture is a view of our freestalls and alley from the maternity box stall (aka straw storage in off season) and to the right is the water trough for winter use (the barn has lighting and electricity, making it much easier to heat water from here than from an outer paddock). Next to the trough is the hay feeder, then the mineral feeder, then a gate to the outdoor exercise area and the exit gate where the cows head out to be milked.

REFERENCE MATERIAL:

If you still have questions, I encourage you to scroll back through the photos for ideas and clarification. If your question is still not answered, feel free to ask it as a comment (below) or email us directly. We respond to all emails and comments, so if you do not hear back from us, we have not received your message, try again!

 
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4 thoughts on “Designing your own freestall cow bed

  1. Ramandeep

    Hi,
    First up, great information for someone who doesn’t have or want to invest in store-bought options.
    In my herd cows have different lengths. I wanted to know, that whether by moving the neck brace, we could make the cow lie at the right place.
    I am building a new shed that will be housing both Jerseys and Holsteins. So the lying area will have to be built for the larger holstein. Should I then move the neck brace and the brisket 3ft inside making the Jerseys lie down perfectly according to the rump.

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    1. You have a few options. Separating the cows would be easiest for stall construction, but may not be practical for your daily needs.

      You can build all the stalls to Holstein size, but the Jerseys will lay backwards, lay in too far, and make a mess of the stall ruining the effectiveness.

      Your idea on the neck bar is definitely worth a try. You could also build stalls of different sizes. It’s not 100% effective, but odds are the big cows will lay down in the big stalls, leaving the small stalls for the Jerseys (you can vary both length AND width). Our cows are very particular so they end up laying in the same stall almost every time, even though they’re not tied in.

      Tie stalls would be an alternative option – you could adapt each stall to each cow if you know she’s going to be tied in there for sleeping/milking/eating time. Or, build the freestalls and tie each cow where you want her to lay for the first few nights to try to encourage them to pick the right stall for them. 🙂

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    1. It doesn’t, the purpose is to not make a mess of where they sleep (because wet/dirty = mastitis). Alleys are cleaned once a day, but most of the manure is just outside the curb. It’s the tidiest system I’ve seen available for small farms. We use a wheelbarrow and clean up the manure daily and have a large compost pile nearby to age the manure for fertilizer.

      The only other way I know of to keep an alley clean is to put in a grate in the alley against the curb (out about 1 foot) and underneath the grate is a concrete open space where it falls down into. This is commonly seen in tie stall barns back east. The grates are cleaned by a paddle system and water. Not economical for a family cow. 🙂

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