The Truth About Freestall Management (And How It Improves Your Cows’ Health)

March 20, 2020
Freestall management is an important part of any dairy operation. Here are three simple ways to maintain clean, comfortable freestalls to keep your cows healthy and producing high-quality milk.

Managing your freestalls properly may be one of the most important things you do to keep your cows healthy and producing high-quality milk. According to Penn State’s Extension office, “A well designed and managed dairy cow freestall (cubicle) can reduce excessive standing, allow more efficient rumination, improve cleanliness and minimize injury.”

Why is this? A properly designed stall has the appropriate dimensions and location, allowing the cow to move in and out of the stall comfortably while giving her a comfortable place to lie down. A properly managed stall focuses on making the lying surface as clean and comfortable as possible.  

Why is freestall management so important?

One of the primary concerns with freestall management is to ensure the cow has a comfortable place to rest. A properly managed, deep-bedded stall promotes longer lying times and minimizes hock and knee injuries. These two things are a major contributor to high milk production.

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Freestall management is important for cow comfort.

The stall surface is an excellent breeding ground for bacteria. Bacteria need three things to survive — food, water and heat — and the stall surface provides these three things.

The bacteria’s food can be supplied in number of ways. Any organic material that comes into the stall is potential for food. This is especially true for stalls bedded with manure solids. Also, as the cow moves in and out of the stall, it drags additional manure and urine in with it. As the cow spends time in stall, leaking milk from the udder also contributes to the bacteria’s food. 

Moisture is brought into the stalls in the same ways. The cow’s body heat provides all the warmth the bacteria then need to thrive. Minimizing or eliminating any or all of these three things minimizes the bacteria’s ability to survive. 

Managing the stall means managing the stall’s comfort, cleanliness and moisture level(s). Clean bedding minimizes the bacteria that is reintroduced back into the stalls. Dry bedding minimizes the moisture that’s brought back into the stalls and is capable of absorbing moisture from the cows and environment, ultimately keeping the cows drier and cleaner. Less moisture in the bedding reduces bacteria’s ability to thrive. Cows strongly prefer a dry bedding material over a wet one, and they demonstrate this preference by significantly reducing their lying times on the wet material. 

If we can assume that the freestalls have been built and installed properly, then there are several things you need to consider when managing your freestalls with either sand or manure bedding. Each type of bedding requires slightly different management routines to ensure the greatest level of success.

Proper freestall management requires a few relatively simple things. 

Bedding frequency

The frequency that bedding needs to be added to the stalls really depends on the bedding type, but new bedding should be added at least once a week at the minimum. 

This additional bedding does several important things. First, it replaces the material that has been removed by the cows as they move in and out of the stalls. The new bedding should bring the stall surface up so it is higher than the curb and slopes back toward the curb. This creates the comfortable surface for the cow and helps position her in the stall properly.

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Freestall bedding should be higher than the curb to position the cow correctly in the stall. 

Regular addition of the bedding helps to minimize the bacteria teat ends are exposed to since clean, new bedding has lower bacteria levels than bedding that has been in the stalls. On a daily basis, and prior to the addition of any new bedding, the soiled bedding needs to be removed. 

  • If bedding with sand, replace the bedding at least once per week. The average sand usage is about 50 pounds per cow per day.
  • If bedding with manure solids, replace the bedding at least two times per week. The average use is about 30 pounds per cow per day.

Bedding depth

Maintaining the proper depth of bedding is important for cow comfort. In one study done by the University of British Columbia, cows averaged 11 minutes less time lying down for every 1 cm (0.39 inches) drop in bedding depth. In a deep-bedded freestall, the bedding should remain above the rear curb as much as possible. Ideally, the greatest height will be at the front of the stall and the sand will slope backward toward the curb. 

There are several ways to maintain the proper depth. The first is regular addition of bedding material. The second is regular grooming. Cows naturally create a depression in the center of the stall as they lie down. This area is generally more compacted from the weight of the cow. Daily grooming of the stall breaks up the compacted areas and levels the stall surface.

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Groom freestalls at least once a day to break up the compacted areas.

Bedding dryness

There are several ways to manage the moisture in the bedding. The first thing is to minimize the amount of moisture in the bedding prior to putting it in the stall. 

Sand bedding

Mechanically dewatering recycled sand will contain about 12% moisture, and with minimal conditioning, 6% moisture can be achieved. Sand should have no more than this amount of moisture in it before using it for bedding. 

Ideally, the sand would go through a drying system where the moisture is reduced down to 2% or less before being reused. Besides removing the moisture, a drying system virtually eliminates all bacteria in the bedding. 

Dried manure solids

Manure bedding is most frequently created from material that is separated using a screw press. These dewatered fibers range from 65-70% moisture. 

Many dairies use the fibers directly after separation, while others condition them with lime or other treatments to reduce the moisture and pathogens. A drying system reduces the moisture content to 50-55%. This is the ideal moisture content in bedding, as it removes the most moisture while minimizing the dustiness of the bedding. 

One added benefit of dried bedding is its ability to absorb more moisture both in the stalls and in the alleys, leading to cleaner cows

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Dry bedding, such as that from a McLanahan Bedding Dryer, reduces the ability of bacteria to survive.

Managing these three things well will help keep your cows healthy while maximizing milk production.  

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Tags: Bedding Management, Dairy, Agriculture, Manure Management