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How Free-stall Design Impacts Milk Production

Free-stalls have emerged as the dominant housing option for dairy cattle, replacing traditional tie-stall and stanchion barns to take the top spot. Typically comprised of stalls, cow traffic alleys, and feed alleys, they provide a clean, comfortable living space for dairy cows. Done correctly, they have enormous benefits for cow welfare and can lead to increased milk production.

Free-stall Design

Free-stall dimensions must be appropriate to accommodate a cow standing, resting, and rising without risk of injury or pain. Modern-day dairy cows are bigger than their milk-producing ancestors. As such, it’s important to ensure that stalls are big enough to accommodate them comfortably.

Farmers should be aiming for designs between 17-18ft curb to curb, whilst the width should be measured inside the loop for an accurate indication of what a cow feels. 50 inches is generally considered ideal.

Monitoring a cow’s legs and feet for signs of injury will indicate if a stall is too narrow, short, or contains unsuitable surface material. But, ensuring that the following considerations are taken into account, should ensure a clean, comfortable stall for any cow and help to boost milk production.

Neck Rail

One of the main aspects of a free-stall is the neck rail (sometimes called the headrail). Proper placement encourages soiling in the alley which makes cleaning easier and encourages more time spent in the stall.

The rail should be positioned so that when the cow stands up, the rail touches the top of her shoulder, guiding her back a few inches. It should be located somewhere between the lower and forward withers, and either directly above or an inch or two to the cow’s side, of the brisket locator.

Incorrect placement can result in:

  • Perching
  • Diagonal standing
  • Neck injuries
  • Lameness
  • Sole ulcers

Brisket Locator

The second key aspect of a free-stall is the brisket locator, however, their use is much debated. When positioned correctly, they prevent a cow from lying too far forward in the stall, but many cows prefer stalls without them and will spend less time resting if they’re present. The reason their use remains popular among dairy farmers though is their ability to reduce the risk of mastitis. Which, as any dairy farmer knows, is bad news for milk production.

If using, brisket locators should be placed roughly 4 inches above the mat/stall base. This is because any higher and a cow’s natural stride is interrupted, which could result in stumbling or falling.

Lunge Room

Anyone who has spent time around cows will know that they do not get up or lay down in the same way as most other animals. Cows require room to extend forward and downward, and backward and upwards to complete the full range of motion required to get them up from the ground and vice versa.

Free-stalls should include adequate lunge room to allow a cow to complete the natural forward-backward motion. Knowledge of the lunge space requirements for specific breeds is particularly important if stalls will have solid fronts. It also helps to correctly position neck rails regardless of stall frontage.

In general, obstructions in the stall, whether part of the structure or occurring in the barn itself, should be avoided. This will reduce the risk of stress and injury to the cow and help to encourage more time spent resting in the stall.


87% of milk is water. Ensuring that dairy cows have access to waterers is key for maximizing milk production.

Cows consume anywhere between 30-50 gallons of water a day, but a 3ft water area per 10-15 cows should provide an adequate supply. Placement of the waterer is important too. The distance from the edge of the waterer to the edge of the wall should be a minimum of 12ft to allow other cows to move past those drinking.

To reduce disease, waterers should be cleaned and scrubbed regularly. High rails around waterers can also help to maintain cleanliness by preventing a cow from stepping a foot in. 

This has an added effect of helping to reduce injury too.

Stall Surface

The ideal stall surface should provide thermal insulation, traction, and softness to reduce the risk of abrasion. There are many options to consider, including:

  • Rubber/gel-filled mattresses
  • Foam mats with rubber tops
  • Chopped straw
  • Kiln-dried sawdust/softwood shavings

Often mattresses are used in conjunction with a surface material like straw, although it is worth noting that they have a limited lifespan and will need to be replaced every few years. When choosing a free-stall surface, it is important to take into consideration its impact on any existing cleaning regime.

Air Flow

Air quality is another key factor for ensuring a cow’s comfort. Their natural habitat is outside, so ensuring that the stalls are housed in a building with enough ventilation is important.

However, cows do not like smoke, and using it to test for wind speed to see how air moves through the building will cause unnecessary stress. Instead, a popular solution is to reach for a children’s classic — bubbles. They won’t negatively impact a cow’s comfort and some even seem to like it.

Stall Design’s Impact on Milk Production

Ensuring optimum free-stall design will not only improve cow welfare within the herd but will also improve milk production.

The more time a cow spends lying down, the more blood that is pumped to the udder, producing more milk. Research by the University of Lincoln Nebraska shows that cows in the top 10% of milk production spend more time resting — up to 2.3 hours more — than the average cow. (They also spend less time standing or perching in alleys which can be achieved by the proper installation of the features covered above.)

It has been predicted that for every additional hour spent lying down, a cow produces 2 to 3.5lbs more milk. For the sake of a few simple tweaks that will improve welfare and make maintenance easier, there’s a significant payoff in terms of both milk production and profits.