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3 common myths about stall use

Amy Throndsen for Progressive Dairy Published on 19 July 2020
Cows bedded down

No one wants to see cows standing when they should be lying comfortably in their stalls, making milk and resting.

Why do cows sometimes refuse to lie down in the stalls? It may be easy to jump to the conclusion that the stall surface isn’t comfortable, but there’s often more to the story than what’s at the base of the stall.

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The following are three common back barn beliefs, or myths, that don’t tell the whole story. Here are a few analogies to make the points; the examples are meant to provide a little laugh but also some food for thought.

Myth 1: Cows stand instead of lie down because the stall surface is uncomfortable

Cows standing because they are not comfortable on the stall surface is a possibility. However, other factors are often overlooked. Let’s look at neck rail positioning in this scenario:

It’s snowing outside and zero degrees. There is a 6-foot-tall woman standing outside. The door is 5 feet, 9 inches high.

Is the woman standing outside the door because the chair she has to sit on in the room inside isn’t comfortable? Possibly.

However, it’s also possible that she is standing outside for a few other reasons:

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1. She hasn’t figured out how to bend down far enough to get through the short door frame.

2. Last time, she didn’t bend down far enough, so she whacked her head – and she remembers how that hurt, so she’s trying to figure out how to not go through that pain again.

3. She likes the cold for a little bit, especially to digest after eating a big dinner, so she’s not ready to go in yet.

4. The boss is in the room, and she doesn’t want to talk to her. She would rather stand in the snow than deal with the boss.

We see this with cows, too.

The neck rail is so far back in the stall (to help with stall cleanliness and prevent them from manuring in the stall), the cow can’t get in the stall.

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This has nothing to do with the comfort of the stall. It has to do with them not being able to get in the stall. The neck rail positioning is helping the management of the stall, not the comfort for the cow.

The cows are not necessarily saying they are uncomfortable on the available beds. It could as easily be they are uncomfortable in the available stall. It may have nothing to do with the surface lying area at all.

Myth 2: The cow’s choice of stall surface will tell you which option is most comfortable

Cow behavior can be observed, but could there be other factors at play with cow choice?

Let’s say your pantry is filled with 100 bars of chocolate. That’s the way it’s always been. You have a steady supply of chocolate bars, and you never have to think about it. No one complains; life is grand.

Then one day your doctor consults with you and says, “Seems like your son has gained a few pounds. You should think about including some fruit in his diet – that would help him improve his health.”

You take the doctor’s advice, but you also believe your son will make the right decision and tell you what he prefers by his choice. You decide you’re going to let your son choose.

So instead of 100 bars of chocolate, you swap out 10 chocolate bars for 10 apples. You have 90 chocolate bars and 10 apples. What do you think your son will choose? The apple is sweet and crunchy and delicious – why wouldn’t he choose the apple? Does that mean the apple is not healthy? Does that mean the apple will not provide him nourishment? Is it the apple’s “fault” your son did not choose it?

Whether the cows “choose” something may not have anything to do with that thing. It’s possible their choice is hurting them rather than helping them.

Another thing to consider is that when producers try something, for example, and change 10 stalls, it can often be the ones in the least-desirable location. Imagine those 10 apples on the top shelf. Your son can’t even see them, let alone reach them. He doesn’t choose the apple. What is he actually telling you versus what assumptions are you making about what he’s telling you?

If we gave cows free choice on their feed, they would eat all the grain and not the TMR mixture. We don’t feed cows free choice anymore, so why do we look for cows to show us what “free choice” for bedding they prefer?

Myth 3: When cows lie diagonal, that means the stall surface isn’t comfortable

The stall surface isn’t the only factor that plays into a cow’s choice to lie crossways. Stall comfort and obstructions are major influencers as well.

Try this exercise: Sit in your chair with your knees against the wall. Try it; you’ll be surprised.

What happens when you get up sitting next to the wall? If you’re 20 (or when you were 20), you may be able to pop right up and maneuver around the wall in front of you without any trouble. It doesn’t seem like a problem. But what are you teaching yourself? The chair isn’t comfortable enough. You’d rather stand and walk around for a few more minutes than have to deal with the wall. Your weight is distributed funny when you get up and puts unnecessary pressure on your knee or hip. You start to wear down your body parts.

How about if you’re in your 30s, 40s or 50s? You may have less “pop right up” and experience more trouble adjusting yourself in rising from the seated position with a chair so close to the wall. You experience the same – standing, walking, weight distribution issues as you did in your 20s.

If you won’t try the chair exercise, why not? It’s not practical or comfortable, so why would you do it?

When we don’t provide the lunge space necessary for cows, we’re asking the cows to do just that: Sit in a chair with her knees against the wall each time she lies down.

Cows experience this challenge of getting up when they have something in their lunge space. It could be a wall because the stalls are too short, or perhaps the cows have outgrown the space for the stall. The obstruction could even be another cow’s head because the head-to-head is too narrow.

Do your cows have the lunge space they need to get up with ease?

Dan Sullivan, a business leader, says, “The eyes only see and our ears only hear what our brain is looking for.”

  • What objective criteria are you using to track and monitor your thinking?

  • Do you always consult with the same person or group?

  • What could someone else’s opinion offer to your farm and practices?

It is human nature to see what we’re already looking for and support the decisions we’ve already made. We have to fight that natural instinct to grow and challenge ourselves.  end mark

PHOTO: When cows prefer to stand instead of using their stalls, multiple factors may be at play. Photo by Mike Dixon.

Amy Throndsen
  • Amy Throndsen

  • Chief Operating Officer
  • Advanced Comfort Technology Inc.
  • Email Amy Throndsen

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