Where do cows live? The strategy behind dairy barns
Kansas State University professor Mike Brouk has spent much of his career studying the different styles and importance of dairy cow housing.
Variables such as climate ultimately dictate the type of housing dairy farmers build, but Brouk is proud of a common thread that runs throughout the dairy community: Cow comfort is priority No. 1.
“In my 25-year-plus career, I’m just amazed at the advances that we’ve made in cow comfort, regardless of what type of housing system we have for our herd,” Brouk said. “It’s just been incredible what we’ve been able to do to put our cows into the very best situation that we can.”
There is not a one-house-fits-all approach since the U.S. has dairy farms in all 50 states, and – just like humans – cows require housing that meets the challenges of their environment.
About a third of the U.S. dairy cow population resides in California, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, Kansas, Colorado and Idaho. Many farmers in these states use a dry lot housing system where the cows are divided into separate areas – or pens – and are free to move about on soil.
“Dry lots are a fairly simple system that don’t require a lot of maintenance,” Brouk said.
Dry lots feature long feed bunks and water troughs the cows can access as they please. Dry lot dairies also have open-air structures where the cows can seek shade if the sun becomes too warm or if they need protection from the snow or rain, as well as mattresses or sand bedding where cows can rest comfortably.
In arid states such as Arizona, some of these structures feature cooling systems that blow cool air and mists of water onto the cows to provide additional relief. But, Brouk said, this sort of system isn’t as critical in a state such as New Mexico, where higher elevations can bring cooler temperatures in the evenings.
The freestall barn is another common style of housing, particularly in southern states that have heavy rainfall or high temperatures. As the name implies, this structure allows cows to move about “freely,” and the barn has open sides to allow for full ventilation. Cows can eat a well-rounded diet that is brought to them and can drink water as they please.
Freestall barns have very long metal roofs that protect the cows from the elements and feature bedding that can be made of sand, wood chips or even mattresses. These barns also commonly have systems of fans and water misters to cool cows in warm climates. In cold regions of the U.S., freestalls have curtains that can drop down on the barn’s sides to hold in heat, while still ensuring proper ventilation.
Farmers who use freestalls can collect cow manure and use it as a natural fertilizer option on their crops that are grown to feed the cows, completing a cycle of sustainability.
A third housing option is the tie-stall barn, used by farms with small herds. These barns provide individual stalls for cows that allow for clean, dry and comfortable resting and standing, plus ample room for workers to milk the cow in the stall.
“Farmers invest a lot of time and effort into their animals, so they don’t want to see them fail,” Brouk concluded. “The vast, vast majority of our dairy farmers have a deep concern about what their animals experience on their dairy farms. They truly want their animals to be productive and comfortable, not simply because of what it means financially, but for how they want to care for their animals.”