Space requirements for dairy cows

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Source: University of Minnesota Extension, Emily Krekelberg, Extension educator

Quick facts

  • Stall spacing and bunk spacing are two important components to cow comfort.
  • Depending on a cow’s stage of lactation their spacing needs are different.
  • Dry cows can be at the minimum bunk space while fresh cows should have more space to eat.
  • Stall spacing should be adequate so cows are comfortable and so they have proper lunge space.

Facilities are an important factor in proper dairy cow management. One of the biggest considerations to keep in mind with facilities is space requirements. In particular, stall dimensions and bunk space. These two play a huge role in cow comfort, time budgets and productivity.

It’s important to keep these dimensions in mind when considering options such as retrofitting facilities, breeding decisions, and expansion considerations. The following recommendations are based on a freestall barn.

Lactating cows

Lactating cows represent the majority of the herd. When considering stall dimensions, think about laying space and lunge space.

  • Cows need extra room in front to lunge forward to stand.
  • Stall partitions should be wide enough that a cow can lay comfortably with minimal contact.
  • Allow enough space for the cow to be comfortable, but limit the space to discourage cows from turning around, laying diagonally, or laying so far forward that manure ends up in the stall.

Stall recommendations for a 1,200- to 1,500-pound animal:

  • Stall width: 45-48 inches
  • Stall length (for forward lunging): 8-8.5 feet
  • Neck rail height: 44-46 inches
  • Curb to neck rail and brisket board: 66 inches

These dimensions can be decreased for animals under 1,200 pounds and should be increased for animals over 1,500 pounds.

Bunk space

Bunk space is another critical component to keep in mind. Feed intake drives production, so it’s important to ensure proper access to feed.

  • For lactating cows, 24-30 inches of bunk space is adequate.
  • Headlocks and the amount of overstocking in the pen can influence bunk space.
  • Bunk space should be reevaluated regularly to ensure it is keeping up with demand.

Dry cows

Dry cows are commonly housed in a freestall or on a bedded pack. Dry cows in a bedded pack require 50 square feet of space in the early dry period, and 100 square feet of space when they are close-up.

When possible, there should be a separate, designated area for calving. If using individual calving pens, they should be around 140 square feet (common dimensions are 10 x 14 feet and 12 x 12 feet).

Bunk space for dry cows is just as important for any group. However, they can be closer to a minimum of 24 inches as dry pens are not usually overstocked. Again the presence of headlocks or a feed lane will influence bunk space decisions.

Fresh cows

Fresh cows should be moved back into a regular freestall pen after they have calved and had their colostrum milked out. Space requirements are the same as for a regular lactating cow.

The biggest difference in fresh cow management is bunk space. Adequate nutrition is key for a fresh cow.

  • First calf heifers may have problems accessing feed around larger “boss” cows.
  • Ample bunk space ensures every cow is getting the nutrition she requires.
  • Aim for larger bunk space, around 30 inches per cow.

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