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How to design facilities with reproduction in mind

Humberto Rivera Published on 29 October 2012

Many factors on dairy farms will affect cattle fertility, and facilities are yet another to consider. Production and reproduction objectives, as well as management program style, must be reflected upon from the initial facility design for any dairy.

Functional facilities will have a long-lasting and rewarding impact on an operation as a whole. This article’s goal is not to give technical recommendations for building but rather to highlight crucial elements of a building’s design to consider from the reproductive standpoint.



Regardless of the type of housing being built (tiestall, boxstall, freestall, bedding pack, dry lots, etc.), cow comfort and employee efficiency should be the focus for the process. Realize that the purpose of building dairy cow facilities is to maximize production through cow comfort. This includes the ability for farm employees to safely, easily and efficiently manage animals.

Cow comfort
The respective breed and maximum number of cows expected to be in the building at any given time directly affects the size and capacity of a facility. The comfort of an environment is critical. Cow comfort goes further than just animal welfare. It will influence productivity, reproduction and, ultimately, profitability.

Common sense advises that 100 percent occupancy corresponds to maximum occupancy. This should be the limit for number of cows allowed in a pen.

However, most producers tend to exceed this with 110 to 120 percent occupancy in production groups. The threshold limit should only be breached when cows have enough space at the bunk, fresh feed and available drinking water 24 hours a day.

Give special attention to transition and fresh cow facilities. These occupation rates should never exceed 85 percent of the pen capacity. To realistically maintain this goal, build transition facilities for 140 percent of the maximum number of freshening cows you are expecting to simultaneously have in the pen. Note that in open feedlots, 100 square feet should be the minimum laying space per cow for maximum comfort.


For years, research has proven the benefit of dirt over concrete flooring to increase estrus expression in lactating dairy cows. The difference comes from a fear of slippery floors and, perhaps, past painful experiences of falling. This can stop a cow from freely mounting other cows and openly displaying estrus behavior on concrete floors, thus making heat detection much more difficult.

Unfortunately, concrete flooring is a must in most freestall housing designs. Therefore, it is important to implement anti-slip aids. The most common means is deep grooving for high-traffic areas, such as thruways, holding pens and feed alleys. Rubber mats are another great option for walkways and feed lanes.

Open feedlots do not typically need special considerations, as they have an advantage of a soft dirt surface where animals interact. The exception would be a high-moisture floor concentration that creates a muddy environment. This not only affects feet and legs but overall fitness and udder health.

Transition groups
The fact that any source of stress will have a negative effect on the already depressed dry matter intake (DMI) for transition cows is widely accepted. Additional stress triggers include limited bunk space, inadequate resting space, mixed parities of cow status and temperature (heat stress).

Highly focused facility and management strategies for transition groups can be aimed towards diminishing the drop, or even possibly increasing, DMI during this critical period. In general, groups should not have any space limitations for eating, drinking or resting.

Specific recommendations related to production and reproduction should also be noted, in addition to the previously mentioned stocking rate. Spacing for water availability should be 3 inches of lineal free space per cow. In regards to space at the feedbunk, assume at least 30 inches of lineal free space per cow.


Self-locking gates are not ideal for transition groups. Stanchions may limit the number of cows that can be eating at a given time, causing diminishing DMI.

A good starting point for making improvements in transition cow DMI is separating groups based on age. Sorting out first-lactation heifers from mature cows will especially reduce feedbunk competitiveness.

Strong emphasis also needs to be on heat-stress abatement systems. Producers might see this management practice an onerous expense for dry cows because they will not yield an immediate return on the investment. However, several studies have shown an economical advantage of using heat-abatement systems in dry and transition groups. The subsequent lactations yielded higher milk production and reproduction performance.

Production groups
In production groups, self-catching headlock gates are extremely useful. These devices make reproduction management, and other veterinary work, much easier. They will be especially helpful for routine practices that require intensive individual animal handling on a regular basis, such as heat synchronization for timed A.I. programs.

Although palpation rails are convenient options for veterinary work and pregnancy check evaluations, either by rectal palpation or ultrasound, self-locking gates are a better choice for hormonal treatments. They have greater practicality for application procedures, as well as for increased protocol compliance.

Automatic sorting gates will also allow sorting for breeding or veterinary work. However, these gates are not practical in large herds due to the high volume of cows that might be sorted for breeding in a single day. Another point to note, in sorting for breeding based on tail chalk, is that the heat detection program should allow for evaluation of secondary signs of heat.

Consideration can be given to the installation of fully computerized integrated dairy equipment as well. This may very well be the direction the future of large dairies is moving.

These tools allow producers to monitor every area of the productive system, encompassing traits such as milk yield, milk quality, health, nutrition, feed intake, reproduction, pre-fresh and fresh cows. Potential programs include milking parlor technology, individual cow data management computer programs, feeding software and activity devices for heat detection.

Regardless of the unquestionable benefits these advanced technology systems have, do not discount the usefulness of self-locking gates. Automatic head gates do have a place in facility setups for individual cow evaluations. Groups can be easily and safely restrained for insemination in pens with self-locking gates – they are tremendously efficient.

Daily reproductive work involves detailed observation of all eligible cows for heat detection in order to optimize reproduction outcomes in a dairy. Realize heat detection should not be entirely replaced with heat detection aids.

The active reproduction procedures of insemination and hormonal treatments are difficult to perform in a vet room or palpation rail. Facilities should allow these proceedings to take place in group cow pens in order that milking routines, farm chores and cow comfort are not affected.

Properly designed facilities for reproduction management will have strong positive impact on reproduction performance and overall farm profitability. PD


Humberto Rivera
Reproduction Services Manager
Accelerated Genetics