The Use of Tie Stalls and Stanchions as a Means of Restraint for Dairy Cattle

Reader Contribution by Steve Judge
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Sometimes things that appear to make sense to the uninformed eye make no sense to experienced eyes.  For example, the three major Farm Animal Welfare groups in the US including American Humane Certified, Certified Humane Program, Animal Welfare Approved and “Certified Organic – USDA Agricultural Marketing Service” prohibit the use of tie stalls (and stanchions) for dairy cattle with no exceptions or conditions.  I have been involved in the dairy industry for over 50 years and have owned and managed several dairy farms.  My emphasis has always been on humane cow care, cleanliness and comfort.  Through the years, I have seen some fairly horrible and inhumane dairy cattle housing.  I have also seen the best housing when it comes to cow comfort and cleanliness.

In the 1960s I worked on a traditional 40-cow Jersey farm where he cows were housed in stanchions when in the barn.  I completely agree with prohibiting stanchions in barns where the cows sleep or are kept inside more than they are let out in paddocks or on pasture.  Why, because most old-fashioned wooden and steel stanchions do not give the cows the freedom of movement required to groom themselves or turn their heads when they lie down and sleep.  They also severely restrict a cow’s ability to stand up from a lying or sleeping position because the bottom of the stanchion is attached to the curb and only has limited travel.  When cows get up they lunge forward and get up on their hind feet first and then get up on their front feet.  Cows restrained in stanchions can find it very difficult to get up from a lying position without bruising their shoulders because of the lunge.  Some cows (too many) have died from exhaustion trying to get up in stanchions. 

On the contrary properly secured stanchions (used as headlocks) can be an inexpensive and easy way to secure cow for milking, grooming, breeding or for medical procedures as long as the cow doesn’t have to get up from a lying position while secured in a stanchion.  In those cases and with those restrictions, stanchions should be allowed as a temporary restraint for dairy cattle (headlocks).

Properly designed tie stalls are a completely different form of restraint for dairy cattle.  There are several designs for tie stalls including “comfort stalls” and New York tie stalls that give a cow plenty of room to groom herself and the lay down and get back up.   The major considerations for any tie stall are the height and placement of the curb and neck rail and the footing on the floor or tread of the stall.  Ideally tie stalls are equipped with mattresses, mats or other padding that gives the cows slip free footing and a generous cushion for when they are lying down.  If the treads are concrete you can cover them with bedding such as saw dust but that isn’t 100% effective and it can be very expensive.  Good mattresses or mats can save a lot of money that otherwise would be spent on bedding and vet bills for swollen hock joints and stepped on teats.   Concrete can also become slick and slippery for cows entering the stall.  Cows do not like slippery footing and if they slip entering a stall they may not be willing to enter it again, especially if they have to cross a gutter.  Cows also need good traction for their rear feet when they stand up.  If a cow’s hind hooves slip while standing up she may panic and injure herself or a cow beside her.  Putting a little granulated or pulverized lime down on the tread can help provide traction.  But thick and securely attached mats and mattresses provide the best traction.

Sizing the tread for the size cows you plan to milk is also critical so the tread is neither too long nor too short.  Don’t think you are being kind to your cows by designing stalls will longer than needed treads.  You want the cows’ manure to go into the gutter not on the treads under them. The curb at the head end of the tread should be high enough to prevent the cows from wasting their feed but short enough so the cow has plenty of room to lunge forward when getting up without banging into the curb and bruising her brisket.  The neck rail needs to be at the right height and far enough ahead to give the cow access to her feed without irritating her neck. The tread should also be sloped back to the gutter so that any water or urine that gets onto the tread will drain into the gutter.  Barn floods caused by cows breaking waterlines are not that uncommon and it is very important that the water can drain to the gutter and not pool under the cows.  And it is helpful to have the gutter flow to the outside if flooded.  Under normal circumstances gutters in tie stalls should not flood.

The bottom line is this:  Both stanchions and tie stalls have a place in modern housing for dairy cattle as long as they are designed and managed properly.  Prohibiting them across the board is both short sighted and unwise.  I have seen as many ugly cow injuries occur in free stalls and loose housing as I have seen or experienced in tie stalls.   The major advantage of tie stalls is it is easier to manage and conserve the cows’ feed, manure and bedding.  The feed should be well contained in the manger in front of the cows out of the elements and their manure should be well contained in the gutter behind them until the gutter is cleaned and the manure is spread or placed in a compost pile.  If you have a small herd of cows don’t think you will save time or bedding with a free stall, loose housing or a bedded pack.  Bedded packs or loose housing still need to be cleaned or picked daily and they require a lot more bedding than properly designed and managed tie stalls do in order to keep the cows clean.  Cows housed on a bedded pack or in loose housing each need up to 100 square feet of floor space in order to stay clean.

You can read more of Steve’s blog posts here.

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