Freestalls that fit heifers just right
Abby Bauer, Senior Associate Editor
December 9, 2021
Heifers can do very well when raised in freestalls, and the overall footprint and bedding requirements of a freestall barn is often smaller than that of loose housing. However, the stalls need to be heifer-sized to make this system work.
In a recent Penn State Dairy Digest newsletter, agricultural engineer Dan McFarland reviewed the freestall needs of heifers. He explained that a freestall’s size and structure should allow a heifer to enter the stall, recline, rest comfortably, rise, and then exit the stall easily.
“Size does matter,” he wrote in regard to stall design. He emphasized that size of the heifers, not age, should be used when determining stall dimensions.
“Heifer age is often not an accurate gauge of heifer size on many farms,” he explained. “Freestall dimensions are more accurately determined by heifer mass, so an accurate weight estimate for heifers intending to use the stalls is necessary to ensure good stall acceptance and use.”
He noted that heifers are more likely to use stalls that are slightly bigger than slightly smaller, so stalls should be designed to accommodate the size of the heifers as they are leaving the pen.
In a heifer barn, the stall beds need to be comfortable and durable. McFarland said that mattresses and soft mats are typically good options for heifers. He said that deep-bedded stalls can also be used but acknowledged that heifers are more likely to paw and dig out bedding than older animals, requiring more stall maintenance. Bedding is still an important part of improving comfort, encouraging stall use, and keeping heifers clean, though.
In an existing barn where heifers aren’t using the freestalls or are lying in them incorrectly, there are a few adaptations that may help. McFarland wrote that freestall acceptance and use are often improved by moving the neck rail forward or slightly higher to allow heifers to enter the stall with all four feet on the stall bed. In situations where the resting space is too short, removing the brisket board or moving it forward can help.
When it comes to pen size and the number of stalls needed, a farm must look at their herd’s average number of heifer calves per month and the typical age at first calving. Underestimating these numbers can lead to overcrowding or heifers being housed in stalls that don’t match their size.
For farms looking for heifer freestall recommendations, McFarland pointed to this Penn State Cooperative Extension Heifer Freestall Partitions plan. Calculations were made based on animal size to define the suggested stall size and placement of structural elements.