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The freestall dairy barn from a hooftrimmer's perspective

Allen Schlabach Published on 18 January 2013


Cow comfort is an all-encompassing term, which includes almost everything we do on a dairy farm.



When we really think about the whole picture, every minute detail has an influence on the comfort of the cow.

As an example, the location of the facilities is a major consideration.

Are they near or on a hilltop, in a valley, by trees or by a large body of water? This influences ventilation, which is a major component of cow comfort.

Then, as we narrow our focus within the facility, we need to look at designs of freestalls, headlocks, alleyways, watering systems, parlor and holding pen.

As a hoof trimmer, I would like to discuss two key elements of the freestall dairy barn that affect hoof health: the freestalls themselves and the use of headlocks. While there are no unimportant areas, these two I believe deserve more attention because everything comes back to how well we manage every aspect of the cows’ comfort.


1. Research has proven a direct correlation to the standing and lying time of the cow to the incidence of lameness in a herd. The less time a cow spends lying down, the more her risk of lameness increases. Factors of stall design which influence a cow’s decision to accept or reject a stall include length, width, neck rail placement, lunge space, stall surface, bedding material and curb height.

Management of the stall includes the depth of bedding, moisture content of bedding, how well bedding is groomed, cleanliness of stall and the stocking density of the barn. All these things have a direct impact on the lying time of the cow. How, then, can we improve the stalls so the usage time of the stalls increases?

A good place to start is to do a stall usage survey and let the cows tell us whether they like the stalls or not. If they don’t, then we need to review stall design, stall dimensions, bedding materials and maintenance.

Research completed at the University of British Columbia in Canada shows us the cow’s behavior or perspective in choosing a stall. Their work includes video of a cow trying to make another cow vacate a stall while there are empty stalls right beside that particular stall. Why? Because that stall was the most appealing to the cow’s sense of comfort.

The stalls all visually looked the same, well groomed with clean, bright shavings – but there was a difference in the moisture content of the bedding. The researchers created three variations of moisture content, ranging from very dry to 25 percent. All the dry stalls were occupied first by cows introduced early to the area. The cow introduced later had to choose from the remaining stalls.

As she was unsuccessful at removing her competitor from the dry stall she wanted, she was forced to choose the next driest stall. However, this all took time for her to deliberate, which means she was on her feet longer than she should have been. (They actually logged the time that cow spent searching for a comfortable stall to lie down in.)


Stall comfort is pivotal in preventing lameness. The constant grooming of sand stalls is an important example to look at. Research shows that for every inch that the sand is not level, there is a 10-minute reduction in lying time.

So if sand is only added every two to three days and not groomed in between, we can soon accumulate 20 minutes to a half-hour less time spent lying down – time spent looking for a more desirable stall or standing in a stall wishing to lie down, or worse yet, half in a stall. These cows are wasting valuable time off their feet – time that should be spent ruminating while lying down.

This lowers a cow’s productivity and increases the probability of hoof-related lameness. This factor alone may not be enough to cause an immediate hoof health problem but, in combination with other factors that cause an increase in standing time, they can cause lameness.

Many times it is the cumulative effect of several stressors that cause hoof health problems. Identifying and methodically removing them one by one is the key to a healthy-footed herd.

2. My second consideration is headlocks. While an invaluable tool on the dairy, they should be used judiciously. The question is: In using headlocks, how long are cows forced to stand? Are the headlocks normally set to lock cows on return from the parlor? How much time did they spend standing in the holding pen? Was it an hour or more, and by having the headlocks in use we are demanding they stand how much longer?

Whether it is the end of milking, the vet check, breeding or sorting for the hoof trimmer, these management factors end up being several hours of continuous standing. A healthy cow can most likely take such an insult on occasion with minimal consequences.

But add the stress of high production, transition cow challenges or a cow that already has some hoof health issues, and this could be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. The shorter amount of time the cow is forced to stand, the better, period.

As a hoof trimmer, my goal is to be a part of the solution to hoof health problems, not a part of the problem itself. Hoof trimming is a stress for a cow. How can we manage this to have the least amount of stress? Well, one way would be to have the shortest amount of time out of her pen as the goal.

The quicker she can be returned to her normal routine, the shorter the stress period. Here are some questions regarding our hoof trimming standard operating procedures: Is the whole group of cows, representing an eight-hour day’s work, sorted into a pen at the beginning? If so, can they lie down, and do they have access to feed and water?

Trying to mitigate these stresses should be a priority. Preferably any group of cows sorted for hoof trimming should only be around for an hour, like the holding pen for the parlor. It does make more work for us to sort by smaller groups, but the payback will be in reduced stress on the animal. By allowing the cow to return to her comfortable stall and start chewing her cud, we let her get back to her job of milk production.

We need to adjust our time management to carefully review the farm’s animal activities to help reduce hoof and associated health care costs. Accommodating the best interest of our cows is always in the farm’s best interest. PD

Allen Schlabach is a hoof trimmer in Fredricksburg, Ohio, and a member of the Hoof Trimmers Association. Click here to learn more about the organization.

Photo by PD staff.


Allen Schlabach

Hoof trimmer
Dixon Hoof Trimming
Fredricksburg, Ohio