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The basics for building your best barn

Dean Throndsen for Progressive Dairyman Published on 11 March 2016

Let’s look at what it takes to build the best barn for your operation, starting with understanding the basic concepts and the most common errors in barn design as well as other design options or technologies that will eliminate those errors and improve cow comfort.

Basics of stall design

  • Review freestall dimensions from multiple experts and sources.
  • Measure your existing stalls and note their shortcomings.
  • Measure stalls in the best barns that you visit during farm tours.
  • Be sure to give cows wide and long- enough stalls.

Most common error in stall design – stalls too short



Too often, stall length is dictated by the width of the barn. If the length of the stalls were considered, the barn would have to be 4 to 10 feet wider.

The builder doesn’t want to talk about it because it adds to the project cost, and the producer might not know to look at length when everyone in the industry is focused on stall width.

Ignoring stall length to save money in the build ignores the main objective of building a barn in the first place: providing a stress-free environment for the best cow in your herd.

The builder or cow comfort expert should provide the dairyman with video or photos of different-length stalls and how cows interact in those stalls. The dairyman should measure stall length, as well as width, in barns he visits and observe cow behavior as it relates to dairy performance.

Basics of bedding surface

  • Consider consistent comfort
  • Consider dryness
  • Consider maintenance and annual cost
  • Consider comfort over time

Most common error in bedding choice – thinking for the short term


I have seen cows comfortable on many surfaces. The problems arise when the dairyman installs a product or a bedding system but has not looked at how the bedding impacts cows over time or the responsibilities of the dairy producer to manage the bedding.

No bedding system can provide cow comfort without a management plan, and if you install bedding without being committed to or fully understanding the requirements of the stall surface, then cow comfort will suffer.

Examine all products available for your cows to lie on, see these stall surfaces in real barns and consider the impact of the bedding on the rest of the dairy: labor to maintain consistent cow comfort, cow production, cow health, daily cleaning, manure storage, manure spreading method, soil stewardship and cost.

Basics of barn flow

  • Provide adequate feed alley space.

  • Provide enough bunk space for cows to comfortably feed at your maximum projected stocking density.

  • Plan for enough waterers and watering areas at your maximum projected stocking density.

Most common error in barn flow – shortchanging on square feet

Too often, squeezing in more cows becomes the goal of a new build. But building to your best cow means that you will have planned for the right number of comfortable, average cows, and they will reward you with becoming top performers themselves.


Narrow feed alleys, crowded watering areas and minimized lunge and stretch space can all negatively affect cow comfort. Let your “just right” number of cows simply perform better instead of crowding and stressing cows and then struggling with sub-par production.

Consider all of the options for added barn comfort

  • Consider air movement and ventilation technologies that reach all cows.

  • Consider barn positioning relative to wind and sun to provide maximum comfort.

  • Consider different lighting options.

  • Consider walking distances, gates, holding pens, foot baths, crossovers and sick pens and how they work with the freestall flow.

  • Consider and look critically at benefits versus costs of cow brushes, rubber flooring, flexible stalls, new designs in steel loops and other innovations in comfort.

Basics of positive cow-human interaction

  • Minimize cow-human interaction when possible.

  • Provide multiple access points for workers to enter and exit pens without climbing over headlocks or walking the entire length of the barn.

  • Consider automation using technologies like automatic alley scraping, feed pushers, robots and other technologies that reduce skid steer use and noise in and around the pens.

Key considerations in cow-human interaction: too many people

All of the attention is given to robotic milking as a way to reduce labor on a dairy, but the back end of the barn can be a target for labor-reduction technologies.

Once you have identified all of your technologies and looked at the design, step back and take a large view on how cows will flow now and how humans will flow and interact inside the barn.

Consider improving human efficiencies, minimizing cow-human interaction and ensuring that those people who interact with the cows can do so comfortably. As you plan, note the number of back-barn employees you have relative to the number of cows. Ask on the dairies you tour about their employee-to-cow ratio.

Look at each technology on your short list and ask, “What are the labor requirements to achieve maximum cow comfort? How difficult will it be to work with this? Will this provide less stress for the cows and less stress for the handlers?”

Decreasing ongoing tasks of bedding, scraping and maintaining can increase the quality of the time employees spend with cows, which results in calm cows and allows employees to recognize issues before they become problems.

The best barn awaits

Even though our company sells waterbeds, we know that waterbeds perform their best in a barn that is well planned and designed for maximum cow comfort.

I am in this business to help dairy producers plan ahead, do their homework, build a team of experts and create a dairy barn that will be a part of their lives, their businesses and their families for decades to come.

Considering these tips and avoiding the common errors will help you to build the best barn for your dairy.  PD

Dean Throndsen is president and CEO of Advanced Comfort Technology and DCC Waterbeds. Email Dean Throndsen.