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Your checklist for building the perfect heifer barn

Ashley Ambrosius for Progressive Dairyman Published on 04 November 2016
Building the perfect heifer barn

Great attention is focused on how to build calf barns to get babies off to the right start, as well as facilities for adult cows to maximize health and production, but let’s not forget that critical phase in between.

Heifers, from post-weaning to springing, deserve a well-designed building too.



The perfect heifer barn promotes animal health, growth and comfort, with proper ventilation to reduce respiratory disease and plenty of access to fresh feed, water and places to rest.

It also prepares these future cows for life in the milking herd by introducing them to freestalls, lockups and footbaths. The following is a handy checklist to use as a conversation starter with your builder for planning a heifer facility that will meet these needs.


1. Group heifers by size, not age.

This is so often overlooked – simply because that is what we do with our youngstock. As the animals grow, we send them off together. But when the heifers are grouped by size, the layout will be better suited for efficiency along with comfort. The more timid are typically going to be the smaller animals.

Group by size not age


You will not have to worry about the big boss heifers overpowering the little gals to get to food, water or preferred beds. When laying out your groups, the smaller groups will be at one end; as the size of groups gets larger, you will size each living quarters accordingly. Each group should have different-sized beds, headlocks and crossovers, which should all be scaled to your group sizes.

2. Provide adequate feeding areas.

The groups that are larger in size will need a larger feeding area to accommodate to their body sizes. If the feeding areas are cut short, the heifers are robbed of the opportunity to maximize nutrition and growth, which puts them at a disadvantage when they enter the milking herd.

As an example, 3- to 4-month-old animals require approximately 12 inches of bunk space, whereas 16- to 24-month-old animals require approximately 22 inches of bunk space.

3. Match stall sizes to group sizes.

Unfortunately, the one-size-fits-all approach does not apply to heifers when it comes to stalls. Stall size should coincide with the group sizes. There are many aspects to take into consideration when you are deciding on the stall sizes, such as the freestall width, size and forward lunge space, neck rail height and length from the curb to neck rail and brisket boards.


All of these factors play a large role in comfort and cleanliness of your animals. For example, a 300-pound heifer would require a stall approximately 30 inches wide, while an 1,100-pound heifer would require approximately a 42-inch stall.

4. Give heifers great lighting.

It is perceived that just because the heifers are not milking, they can get by with less lighting than in the cow barn. This is far from the truth. In fact, long-day lighting has been shown to increase growth rates and feed intake among heifers. An LED lighting system is a cost-efficient route in any of today’s heifer facilities.Heifers need light

5. Do not overcrowd.

It is very important not to overcrowd in a freestall that houses heifers, due to the fact that this is a completely new territory for them. If you decide overcrowding is something that has to be factored in, then do so in the groups of larger-sized heifers, not the newcomers that are entering from pack barns or calf hutches.

The reason for this is: They have no idea how this freestall thing works. If a heifer cannot find a bed, she may lay down in the alley instead of a stall.

6. Put in footbaths.

More times than not, footbaths are overlooked in heifer barns. Footbaths are a crucial step to keeping foot diseases in check. In adult cow barns, the footbaths are located somewhere en route between the parlor and freestall barn. With heifers having zero need to travel this route, they typically get shafted on footbaths.

So the question remains, where would you put a footbath in a heifer barn? The most successful footbath we have designed in-house is a gated area in a crossover that is used approximately one day every two weeks.

The crossovers are typically shut down for a scheduled time from the feed alley side, which will force the animals through the footbath walkway, allowing them into the freestalls and watering stations.

7. Include plenty of crossovers.

We know adequate water is an important factor in animal health. How do you supply your animals with adequate water? By providing plenty of opportunities for them to drink via crossovers. Here is a rule of thumb: For every 100 feet, there should be a minimum of three crossovers with watering stations.

The middle crossovers are the most popular among the animals, with approximately 40 percent of the water being consumed at this watering station. Be sure to supply a crossover at the end of each group, as this will allow for the heifers to properly disperse themselves throughout their group and will minimize crowding in the middle of the grouping pen.

8. Inspect concrete surfaces.

Do not settle for less than the best when it comes to the concrete your contractor puts in the ground. One thing I cannot express enough is how important it is to tour the work completed by whoever will be pouring the concrete in your heifer barn.

Be sure not only to view recently completed projects but also concrete that has been poured years ago. This will allow you to see how the concrete has held up over time. Any roughness to the flooring will only cause harm to the animals.

9. Barn orientation matters.

When placing a barn on your property, be sure to analyze your location and surroundings. For example, if you are located near a large body of water, you may have prevailing winds which allow for a naturally vented freestall barn. By utilizing these winds, you will have the ability to cut down your ventilation plan. Work with a ventilation expert to come up with the best plan suited for you and your situation.

10. A wider barn is better.

When calculating overall barn size, do not underestimate the width of the freestall barn itself. I cannot say enough how important it is to allow for a wide barn. This is something that may be a little more expensive up-front, but you will never regret it down the road. This could be a true make-or-break item when it comes to your animals’ comfort.

11. Sidewall height and roof pitch affect ventilation.

The sidewall height for a natural-ventilated freestall barn should be a minimum of 12 to 14 feet. This will allow for great ventilation practices. In addition to the sidewall height, in a naturally ventilated barn, it is recommended to have a 4-to-12 roof pitch.

Some contractors may lower the pitch for their own working conditions, but be sure to double-check the roof pitch before a contract is signed with your builder.

12. Management to match the barn.

While planning the layout for your new barn, it is extremely important to take your type of management into consideration. If you are a go-with-the-flow kind of manager, do not overdo your barn. It will work against you.

There is no barn that is perfect for every producer. You need to build a barn that will allow for comfort, but it has to match the characteristics to your management style.

Every producer has their own opinion and style as to which way is best suited to them – for instance, the age or size may be different as to when the farmer introduces their heifers into a freestall setting.  end mark

PHOTOS: Building a facility for heifers can be challenging, as these young animals are growing and their need for space in stalls and at the bunk is changing. When planning a barn for raising herd replacements, there are a few considerations you will not want to overlook. Photos provided by Ashley Ambrosius.

Ashley Ambrosius