A Look at Today’s Dairy Housing Back »

2017 Animal Care Wednesday Webinars
Husbandry Practices in the Spotlight

During the September 6th Animal Care Wednesday Webinar, we heard from Jim Salfer, Dairy Extension Educator at University of Minnesota Extension. Salfer discussed some of the improvements to dairy housing and facilities that today’s dairymen are implementing on farms to ensure cow comfort and promote welfare. I encourage readers to go to the Animal Care Wednesday Webinar website to view the presentation handout which has great pictures of each of the facilities discussed below.

Milk Production: Then & Now

To understand why facilities have changed, we first need to understand the animal that lives in the barn. Cows today are amazing animals and have increased individual milk production compared to the cow our grandparents or parents raised. Cows today are producing three times the amount of milk annually that the average cow produced in 1955!

Table 1. Comparison of a cow’s average milk production: 1955 vs. 2016.

1955 2016
6,410 pounds of milk per cow annually 22,000 pounds of milk per cow annually
754 gallons of milk 2,558 gallons of milk
641 pounds of cheese 2,200 pounds of cheese
534 gallons of ice cream 1833 gallons of ice cream


Today’s Dairy Housing

Cows have blessed us with more nutritious food in return for the care farmers provide as part of “The Ancient Cow Contract” that Neil Anderson, DVM, MSc of Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs speaks about.

“Dairy farming includes a contract with the cattle – a barter of housing, feeding, safety and comfort in exchange for milk and meat.” With this contract in mind, let’s take a brief look at the barns and facilities on farms.

Calves are typically housed in hutches, or individual shelters. Individual housing allows farmers to watch each animal carefully and minimizes the risk of disease transmission between calves. Calves can also be cared for in group pens. New automatic calf feeder technology is a robot that mixes each calf’s milk “on-demand” when it steps up to the nipple. A scanner next to the nipple reads the electronic tag in the calf’s ear and the computer prepares the exact amount of milk assigned for the calf. Milk allocation is adjusted automatically based on the farmer’s preferences. The liquid allocation increases rapidly during the first week on the feeder and gradually decreases as weaning approaches. These group housing systems have positive social benefits for the calves. The automatic feeder allows the farmer to medicate calves directly through their liquid diet if they get sick. There is usually around 20-25 calves per nipple feeder in group housing systems.

Cow housing has many options to fit the needs of each dairy farm and each design takes special management. Tie-stall barns have been a traditional way of housing smaller herds (less than 100 cows) in the Midwest. Tie-stalls require more human labor because not only is feed carried to the cows, but the milking equipment is brought to the cows instead of moving the cows to a parlor. Bed pack or compost barns provide excellent comfort to cows. These facilities are often used in calving areas or special needs pens within a barn where cows may benefit from extra bedding. Typically straw or cornstalks are used, but some farms also have the ability to utilize wood chips/shavings or even separated solids (a portion of the manure that undergoes a drying process). The bedded area is typically monitored daily to ensure hygiene and health, and may be tilled, drug, or more bedding added depending on the type of material used to make the bed-packed area. Another type of cow housing is called a free-stall design, which has long rows of individual lying areas for cows to rest. Different materials are used to create a comfortable bed for the cows including: rubber mats, sand, separated solids, or even water beds. Each of these types of beds has different input costs upfront and require varying degrees of management daily to ensure cow comfort and health.

Ventilation in a dairy barn is critical to the health of the cattle. Three barn designs were mentioned: natural, tunnel, and cross ventilation. Natural ventilation relies on the wind to blow through the barn to exchange the air inside. In naturally ventilated barns, additional mixing fans and sprinklers are used to cool cows in the summer. Tunnel ventilation places fans on one of the short ends of the barn to pull air through the entire length of the barn. Tunnel ventilated barns are long and narrow in design. In contrast, cross ventilated barns place fans along one of the long ends of the barn to pull air across the width of the barn. Cross ventilated barns use baffles, or walls or curtains extending from the ceiling to mid-barn height, to push air down to cow level instead of air moving at rafter height. Each of these barn designs help cows stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer while they produce our milk.

Milking Parlors
Milking parlors have also changed over time. Robotic milkers are gaining popularity even on small dairies. Each robot can milk 50 to 65 cows and typically costs around $200,000. Rotary parlors allow large dairies to have efficient milking routines with fewer employees. Most of the farms in the Midwest use parallel or herringbone parlors.

In Summary

Today’s dairy cows bless us with an abundant supply of dairy products and meat. In return, dairymen continue to implement top-notch management practices and provide cows with the best, most comfortable barns.

Animal Care Wednesday Webinars

To listen to this and past webinars, visit the animal care resource website. For more information about upcoming Animal Care Wednesday Webinars, please contact Heidi Carroll.

The next Animal Care Wednesday Webinar is October 4, 2017 at 11:00 am (CST). To join webinars, log in to the Zoom Meeting a few minutes prior to the start of the webinar.

If you have questions about dairy barn designs and facilities, please contact Jim Salfer. For additional information regarding dairy topics in South Dakota and the region, please contact Tracey Erickson or Maristela Rovai.

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