Dos and Don’ts of Proper Freestall Management

April 9, 2021
Freestall management tips for maintaining happy, healthy and comfortable cows.

Proper freestall management is important for cow health, cow comfort and producing high-quality milk. Regardless of the type of bedding material used, the goal of freestall management is the same: to provide a clean, comfortable place for the cows lie.

To keep cows happy, heathy and producing lots of milk, here are some dos and don'ts of proper freestall management to maintain comfortable freestalls. 


Comfortable cow in a sand-bedded freestall.

Do Keep Freestalls Clean and Dry

A key to proper freestall management is to keep mastitis-causing pathogens and other harmful bacteria at bay. Bacteria can be introduced into the stall in many ways, from the cows’ feet dragging manure and urine from the alleys when they enter the stall to leaking milk from udders.  

One way to reduce the ability of bacteria to grow and survive is to keep freestall bedding clean and dry. Clean, dry bedding not only reduces the ability of bacteria to survive, it also keeps the cows cleaner and drier by absorbing moisture from the cows’ bodies.

Clean, dry beds are more comfortable, and more comfortable stalls lead to cows having longer bouts of lying time. When cows spend more time lying down, they produce more milk, which means higher profits for the dairy.

If bedding is being recycled, starting with clean, dry bedding is key. For sand bedding, Sand Separation Systems can be used to remove the sand from the manure stream and wash away much of the organic matter in the recycled separated sand. For manure fiber bedding, Manure Separation Systems and Manure Dyers can be used to remove the liquid from the manure fibers and dry them to a moisture content suitable for bedding.

To get the sand or recycled manure solids as dry as possible before reuse, dewatering or drying systems can be used following the separation process.

An Agricultural Sand Dewatering Screen can reduce excess moisture in recycled separated sand to as low as 6%, as well as remove up to 80% of the remaining organic matter. Further drying in a Sand Bedding Dryer can reduce the moisture content down to 2% and nearly eliminate all bacteria in the bedding. Sand can be reused in the freestalls immediately after discharging from the Bedding Dryer.

Manure Bedding Dryers can take dewatered manure from a Screw Press or Roll Press at 65-70% moisture and remove an additional 10-15% of the moisture. The dried manure solids can and should be reused immediately following their discharge from the Bedding Dryer. 

Don’t Use the Wrong Sand (If Bedding On Sand)

Not all sand is created equally, and not just any sand will offer a comfortable place for the cows to lie while providing the drainage necessary for keeping the stalls cleaner and drier for longer.

Good dairy cow bedding sand should be devoid of large particles that can harm the cow. It should contain minimal fine material, which can cause the sand to pack in the stalls, making them hard and uncomfortable (and thus increasing stall maintenance). Fine material also tends to stick to the cows, causing them to appear dirty.

Concrete sand is the preferred sand type for dairy cow bedding because it contains a good mix of particle sizes ideal for cow comfort. It contains minimal fine material, which allows it to stay loose in the stalls and readily drain away urine and dripped milk that can lead to the growth of mastitis-causing bacteria.

Besides cow comfort and cleaner, drier stalls, concrete sand is also the ideal sand type for sand separation and recovery because it contains minimal fine material that can be lost during the recycling process.


Recycling sand bedding after being processed through a Sand Lane System.

Do Keep Stalls Full of Sand or Recycled Manure Solids

Bedding depth and frequency are other key factors in proper freestall management.

Bedding Depth

A study titled Freestall Maintenance: Effects of Lying Behavior of Dairy Cattle published by the Journal of Dairy Science shows how bedding depth influences lying time. The study found that lying time decreased by 11 minutes per 24 hours for every 1 cm decrease in sand depth.

Bedding needs to be deep enough to cushion the cow but not deep enough to retain moisture that can allow bacteria to grow. Sand bedded freestalls should be 6-8” (15-20 cm) deep and should cover the cow’s feet as she walks into the stall.

Because cows naturally like to rest facing slightly uphill, bedding should be higher at the front of the stall and slope back toward the curb. The height of the sand in the back should be higher than the curb, as lying time was shown to decease when sand fell below the height of the curb. 


The sand bedding in these stalls is level with or higher than the curb.

Bedding Frequency

The frequent addition of bedding material has several benefits:

  • It replaces bedding kicked out by the cow as she exits the stall with fresh bedding.
  • It maintains bedding depth by filling any depressions in the stall surface that adversely affect the positioning of cows in beds.

Sand bedding should be replaced at least once a week. Manure solids should be replaced more frequently, at least twice a week and sometimes daily. With both bedding types, any soiled bedding should be removed from the stall once a day and before the addition of new bedding.


Stall Fillers offer an easy way to replace the sand that is kicked out by the cows or removed during the grooming process. They attach to a truck or tractor and quickly and efficiently distribute the appropriate amount of sand in each stall. 

Don’t Forget to Groom Freestalls When Necessary

Bedding can become packed under the weight of the cows’ bodies as they lie down. Grooming freestalls as needed improves cow comfort. Compacted bedding doesn’t drain as easily, so moisture can no longer wick away from cow, and stalls become wet and dirty faster.

Stall Groomers make it easy to rake and aerate the stalls between fillings. They attach to a skid-steer and fit neatly under the neck rails to access an entire row of freestalls in one pass. Stall Groomers help keep stalls loose and comfortable to allow for better drainage, drier bedding and drier cows.


Stall Groomers break up compacted bedding material to keep the stalls comfortable. 

Do Design Freestalls for Easy Movement

Freestalls provide the ability for cows to come and go as they please. They should be designed to allow enough space for the biggest cow in the herd to enter, lie down comfortably, get up and exit easily. Stalls that are too small will discourage cows from lying in them. Stalls that are too wide or too long allow cows to lay diagonally or too far forward. The result is manure being deposited in the stall beds and interference between cows in adjacent stalls.

A 1,300-1,500 pound cow requires a freestall space about 48” (1.21 m) wide and between 8’ (2.44 m) and 9’ (2.74 m) long, depending on the stall orientation. This provides enough space for her body to rest comfortably, as well as allows room for her to thrust her head and neck forward naturally as she rises.

The neck rail, located at the top of the partitions that help guide the cow into the stall and separate it from other stalls, should be positioned so that the largest cow in the herd can stand up in the stall with the top of her neck just touching the rail. This prevents the cow from moving too far forward in the stall. Visit the Dairyland Initative to see the latest freestall dimension recommendations.


Cows lying in sand-bedded freestalls.

Freestall management is key to achieving optimum cow health and cow comfort. Proper freestall management begins with selecting a bedding system that provides a comfortable resting place for lactating cows. If bedding is recycled, select a recycling system that produces the cleanest driest bedding possible. Maintaining full stall beds and ensuring they are soft and loose ensures a comfortable resting surface. Following the best practices listed above will help you maintain clean, dry bedding, comfortable freestalls and happy, healthy, high milk-producing cows.  

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Tags: Freestall Management

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