Cow comfort

Cows that are comfortable will have less stress, eat more, have less health problems, and be injured less. Good cow comfort makes milk. Cows should be eating, drinking, milking, or laying down. If stall comfort is a problem, cows stand more. This could increase laminitis. Cows should get up in stalls as they would out on a pasture and with the same comfort. Bedding is needed to facilitate cow movement and maintain cleanliness. Cows should eat comfortably. Overcrowding and slippery floors cause slug feeding. Cows need to be psychologically comfortable and unstressed.

It doesn’t matter how great the ration looks to the nutritionist, if cows aren’t comfortable, you might as well throw all of that computer paper away! Cows that are comfortable will be less stressed, they will eat more, they will have less health problems, and they will be less likely to be injured. The bottomline is that cow comfort makes milk. You don’t have to hire an expensive consultant to improve cow comfort on a farm. Just take some time to look at cows. They will tell you a lot if you are willing to look.

Stall Comfort:

Cows should primarily be doing four things: milking, eating, drinking, and laying down. If 10-15% of the cows on a farm are standing at 2 hours after feeding, there may be a cow comfort problem. Cows need to be using the stalls, not standing in the alley or halfway into the stalls. Are the cows crampy with swollen joints? This could be a ration problem but it also could be a stall comfort problem. When cows aren’t laying down enough, they have poor blood circulation in the feet. This causes laminitis. I remember being on a farm once that had a 15-inch (38 cm) high stall curb rather than the recommended 10-inch (25 cm) high stall curb. The cows didn’t use the stalls and most had laminitis even though the ration was balanced properly.

There are many different stall designs. Many will work properly. Although measurements for large breeds are provided in this paper, it is most important to observe the cows’ reactions to stalls. Don’t just get out the tape measure. Watch cows get up and down in the stalls. Cows should get up the same way in a stall as they would outside on pasture. Cows need to bob their heads down and forward so that they can shift their weight from their back legs in order to get up. In a stall, cows can either bob forward or to the side. It is normally recommended that cows have at least 18 inches (47 cm) of head space and 66 inches (168 cm) of space for their body. On top of that, lunge space must be provided (at least 1 foot (30 cm)). Therefore, if a cow must lunge forward, the stall should be 8 feet (245 cm) long unless cows are able to lunge forward into the space beyond the stall, such as into an opposite cow stall, alley, or outside of the barn. A stall 7 feet (215 cm) in total length must allow the cow to lunge sideways as she gets up. Bending the bottom of the stall loop out of the cow’s way (either higher or lower) will allow cows to lunge sideways.

Don’t forget the brisket board on the stall floor. Brisket boards should be 66 inches (168 cm) from the stall curb and 6-8 inches (15-20 cm) high with a 60o angle. They help to keep the cow from crowding to the front of the stall, help to brace the cow as she gets up, and help to keep the stall cleaner.

The neck rail should be 66 inches (168 cm) from the stall curb and 44-46 inches (112-117 cm) above the stall bed. Its purpose is make cows back up as they stand so that their manure goes in the alley rather than in the stall bed. It also helps to prevent cows from backing into stalls. Unfortunately, sometimes neck rails are installed too low. If cows hit too hard on the neck rail, they will be less apt to use the stall. Look for signs of excessive rubbing on cows’ necks.


Look over the cows’ bodies. Are there any “strawberry lesions” on their hocks from abrasion? This may be a stall design problem or maybe the stalls just need more bedding. Many people think that if they put in mattresses, they don’t need bedding. The experts would tell you that you still need at least a ½-inch (1.25 cm) of bedding to facilitate movement in the stall. Does the stall provide sufficient cushion? Concrete beds often don’t provide enough condition without a lot of bedding. Many consultants consider sand to be the best bedding source because it conforms to the cow’s body, reducing pressure points and increasing weight distribution. Sand provides good footing for greater stability for the cow. Sand also minimizes bacteria growth.


Cleanliness is an important part of stall design. How clean are the cows? If they are dirty, it may be because cows are lying in the alleys or because the stalls are dirty. Many consultants do the “wet knee test”. If your knee is wet after you kneel in the stall for 10 seconds, the stalls are too wet. This can be due to lack of bedding as well as poor stall design.

Eating Behavior:

Cow comfort problems other than stalls usually show up in the cow’s eating behavior. High-producing dairy cows need to eat a large amount and they need to eat about 12 times per day. They want fresh feed. They want to be comfortable while they eat. They want to be able to eat when they want to eat. There needs to be a minimum of 18 inches (46 cm) of bunk space per cow, better yet 24 inches (61 cm) per cow.

Overcrowding and slippery floors are two causes of “slug feeding”. Slug feeding is when cows eat fewer, larger meals per day rather than many small ones. It can cause acidosis and reduce intakes. Fresh cows and heifers are timid and will be hurt the most if they are overcrowded. Furthermore, fresh cows that haven’t had a balanced prefresh diet will suffer even more from overcrowding. These cows will start off feeling poorly, will not be aggressive at the bunk, will take off body condition rapidly and will get more ketotic.

Concrete floors need to be grooved to ensure good cow footing. Grooves are normally ½ inch (12 mm) deep and ½-3/4 (12-19 mm) inch wide and spaced 3.5 inches (9 cm) apart.


Cows also need to be “psychologically comfortable”. Every good cow person knows that calm, happy cows give more milk. When I go into a freestall and all the cows run the other way and I am covered with manure, that tells me that somebody, some activity or something may be giving the cows a hard time.

Holding Area Time:

In a holding area a cow is generally not eating or laying down so we want to minimize that time as much as is practically possible. Try to keep it less than 2 hours per day.


Air movement is important to reduce barn humidity and heat. Condensation, cobwebs, the smell of ammonia, coughing cows, and cows breathing with their mouths open are all signs of poor ventilation.


Remember that milk is 87% water so cows need to drink a lot of it. Researchers estimate that a cow needs to consume one-half gallon (1.9 liters) of water for every pound (0.45 kg) of milk produced. That includes drinking water as well as ration water. Clean water needs to be very available. One recommendation is to have a water tank that is at least three feet long and two feet wide (91 cm by 61 cm) for every 20 cows in a group. Water tanks need to be easily accessible, at least 50 feet (15 meters) of the feedbunk.


Bickert, W.G. 1999. Building and remodeling freestall housing for cow comfort. Proceedings of the Western Canada Dairy Symposium.

Grant, R. and J. Keown. Managing dairy cattle for cow comfort and maximum intake. University of Nebraska - Lincoln, NebGuide.

Reid, D.A. Cow Comfort - The key to dairy profitability.

Related Links:

Managing Dairy Cattle for Cow Comfort and Maximum Intake
Rick Grant and Jeff Keown, University of Nebraska - Lincoln 

Dairy Cow Foot and Leg Problems on New Concrete
David Kammel, University of Wisconsin


Feed Bunk Management to Maximize Feed Intake
H.T. Ballantine


Mary Beth de Ondarza

Mary Beth de Ondarza
45 articles

Nutritional consultant for the dairy feed industry at Paradox Nutrition, LLC.

Look to Paradox Nutrition, LLC for providing:

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Dr. de Ondarza received her Ph. D. from Michigan State University and her Masters Degree from Cornell University, both in the field of Dairy Nutrition.

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Paradox Nutrition

Paradox Nutrition

Paradox Nutrition, LLC is a nutritional consultation business for the dairy feed industry. Mary Beth de Ondarza, Ph.D. is the sole proprietor.

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