Stall Wars: Cows vs. comfort

dairy stalls
Cows eat and relax in the tie-stall barn at Wallace City Farms, in Freedom, Pennsylvania. (Rachel Wagoner photo)

Star Wars captain Luke Skywalker brings his trained combat fighters and swirling sword to remove the villain, Darth Vader from destroying the kingdom.  The final outcome for Luke is for the villain to be removed! Whether in the movies, in life or managing your dairy cows, the villains must be removed to make progress toward good.

Profitable, multigenerational dairy farms have common herd management factors that make them successful. One of these essential herd management fundamentals important for excellent cow health, performance and profit is cow comfort.

Comfortable dairy cows perform better, live longer and produce more lifetime calves when they are provided 24/7 access to clean, dry, well-ventilated housing which includes comfortable beds or stalls. Cow stalls that are improperly constructed, not maintained or incorrectly bedded create war with the cows. The “stall wars” ensue and the cows lose the battle with injury, lameness and loss of rest. When this happens, the dairy farm is at risk of losing the war and failure occurs.

Cow comfort

The comfort of a cow stall, whether a tie stall or free stall is a combination of the stall size (length x width x neck rail x brisket board), stall bed surface (concrete, sand or sawdust), bedding depth, surface cleanliness and stall bedding moisture. The comfort of the stall will impact cow lying time. Healthy, productive cows lay down 10+ hours per day in eight to 10 bouts of 60 to 90 minutes.

Healthy cows that lay down 12 to 14 hours per day will produce 3 to 6 pounds more milk of higher fat content than cows that lay down for 6 to 9 hours.  Cows that lay down will ruminant longer with higher blood flow to the udder which supports higher milk production with higher butterfat.

Deep bedding

Deep levels of bedding (6-inch sand, 2-inch sawdust), proper stall length (8 feet for Holsteins) with neck rail located properly and correct placement of brisket board will increase lying time. Canadian research with free stall herds and robotic milked herds concluded that deep bedding of stalls produced 5.7 pounds per cow milk per cow. Cows will lay up to 15 minutes per day longer for every additional 2 pounds of dry sawdust bedding placed on mattresses. The study concluded that at least 6 inches of deep sand was required for best comfort.

A dairy herd stall comfort consultation I conducted at a farm that had added deep-bedded sand stalls next to the former concrete-based sawdust-covered stalls was proof that cow will choose the most comfortable stalls. Two weeks after the new barn was added, 100% of the deep-bedded sand stalls were filled with calm ruminating cows. The old barn with lightly covered sawdust concrete stalls were only occupied 10% with many cows perched in the stalls and not lying. Cows prefer and will select soft, non-abrasive stall bases. Cows will have one or more hours of lying time in dry stalls (<20% DM) compared to higher moisture (>35% moisture).


The benefits for cows to lie down are not just that they are more productive. Lying down provides relief from standing. Excess standing creates an increased risk for lameness and sore feet in cows. A comfortable stall allows cows to lie down and reduces the risk of a cow developing sore feet and becoming lame. In the Canadian research, less clinical lameness was associated with deep bedding of stalls.

Hock and knee

Cow leg injuries occur on dairy farms and many of the injured areas of the cow can be attributed to components of the stalls. As cows can spend between 8 and 14 hours per day lying in stall-based barns, the design and stall surface of the stall bed have time to significantly affect the cow. There are two main factors through which all three components of the stall bed (bedding type, bedding depth and stall base type) influence the prevalence of hock injuries: abrasiveness of the stall materials and compressibility of the surface.

Different bedding materials, by nature, have different levels of abrasiveness. Cows on less abrasive bedding types, such as deep bedded sand, are >50% less likely to develop a hock lesion compared with cows on wood shavings on concrete stalls. Stalls with small amounts of bedding and concrete stall bases are at greatest risk of a cow developing hock lesions.

Farms with mattresses with minimal amounts of bedding have about 25% more cows with injured or swollen hocks than cows on farms with deep-bedded sand stalls. The hock is considered the area most susceptible to the lying surface because the cow places a lot of pressure on the hock when in a lying position. The front knees of the cow are another area where injuries are often associated with the lying surface. The knees bear weight while lying. Concrete bases with minimal bedding are more prone to causing knee injuries.


In stall-based housing systems, the cow stall design, surface and bedding type have a large effect on cow comfort and cow injuries. As a dairy farmer, a cow comfort review of your herd and facilities should be conducted annually or more frequently with a vet, nutrition consultant or welfare auditor who has been properly trained in cow comfort.  A professional audit uses data loggers on cows over several days to determine total daily lying time along with a professional review of each cow for lameness, hock/knee abrasions, standing time and time away from pen, stall dimensions and overall comfort.

If the stalls are winning the “stall wars” with your cows, the bedding depth is the easiest stall comfort factor to change by adding more bedding. Adjusting the neck rail and brisket board can also be done. Mature dairy cow size has increased over the generations and brisket board and neck rail locations need to be revised with cow size. The location of the brisket board influences how a cow positions herself in the stall when resting, but when improperly placed can cause issues with stall cleanliness and cow comfort. Neck rails improperly placed cause cows to perch in stalls. Stall length is more difficult to modify but additional outside barn extensions or rear stall extensions can lengthen the stalls. Longer stall beds have been shown to decrease the prevalence and risk of injuries and lameness and increase resting times.

As you walk your barns and read your cows, let the cows tell you if the “stall war” is over and the battle is won. Healthy and productive cows have few hock and knee abrasions, lie down in all the stalls and calmly ruminate to make that delicious wholesome milk that we all enjoy.


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  1. Good points! Deep beds are not the best option for every farm(er). Then a soft mattress like comes in view. A few farms have deep beds with sand or straw and Dutch Mountain mats where cows can choose but not showing preference for one or the other.


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