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Designing and building dairy cattle freestalls

Robert E. Graves, Dan McFarland, John Tyson Published on 01 March 2010

Providing a dry comfortable resting area for dairy cattle is essential to their health.

Cows typically rest 10 to 14 hours per day in five or more resting bouts. Well-designed and managed dairy cattle freestalls (cubicles) can reduce excessive standing, allow more efficient rumination, improve cow cleanliness and minimize injury. Cows are not restrained in the stalls and are able to enter and leave as they like. Feed and water are not provided at the freestall, so a cow desiring to eat or drink leaves the freestall and walks to another area of the freestall shelter.



The space required for a cow weighing 1,300 to 1,500 pounds to rise and recline naturally and rest comfortably is about 48 inches wide by 9 feet long. In a recumbent position the cow’s body space occupies approximately 68 to 70 inches of the stall’s entire length. A total stall length of about 9 feet allows enough room for a cow to lunge forward and rise naturally (closed front freestall).

Shorter stalls require an opening to allow a cow to thrust her head and neck through the front of the stall as she rises (open front freestall). A 32-inch-high unobstructed opening measured up from the resting surface the entire width of the stall front is very satisfactory. The brisket locator or front stall support structure should not interfere with cow lunging or resting comfort.

Construction and attachment of stall components must be rugged and long-lasting with minimal chance for pinch points or other injury. There are many variations in partition size, construction material, stall base, and bedding. Regardless of shapes, sizes, or materials, the most crucial requirements continue to be the comfort and cleanliness of the cow.

For optimal cow comfort and stall use, managers should regularly observe cows and their freestall use such as:

  • Are cows and stalls clean and dry?
  • Do cows readily use stalls?
  • Are there injuries, punctures, abrasions, swelling of hocks, legs, hips?
  • Do cows have to push, bang, and/or bump against stall components to recline, rise or change positions?

The cow is the final inspector – if cows are not successfully and regularly using stalls or are dirty and show signs of injury, action is required.


A newly revised Agricultural and Biological Engineering Fact Sheet, Designing Dairy Cattle Freestalls, G-76, is available on the ABE Extension website, Select extension programs/fact sheets/animal housing systems.

Also the Dairy Practices Council has released a revision of Guideline for Planning Dairy Freestall Barns – DPC 1, a 58-page comprehensive reference on freestall housing (

Penn State Dairy Idea Plans on freestall housing can be found at the ABE website and a complete bound collection, Penn State Housing Plans for Milking and Special Needs Cows NRAES – 200, can be found at PD

Excerpts from Penn State Dairy Digest, December 2009

Robert E. Graves, Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering
Dan McFarland and John Tyson, Extension Engineers