seal  Purdue News

October 10, 2003

Loose housing for cows a cheap, clean alternative, expert says

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – As autumn progresses and temperatures take a dive, dairy producers may be looking for fresh and less costly systems for housing dairy cows.

Don Jones, an agricultural engineer at Purdue University, recommends dairy producers use a bedded pack housing system outlined in the Midwest Plan Service publication "Dairy Freestall Housing and Equipment" as an alternative low-cost system for housing cows.

This form of loose housing allows the cows free access to resting, feeding and watering spaces. Wood shavings, clean straw, corn fodder and waste grass hay are common bedding choices in loose housing. Jones said that the bedded resting space should be between 50 and 100 square feet per cow, depending on cow weight.

A bedded pack is used during the winter housing period from Dec. 1 through the end of March. In this situation, the bedded pack acts as a manure storage system.

To manage cow cleanliness, producers can adjust the group size or the quantity of bedding added per day, Jones said. As the bedded area per cow decreases, the amount of bedding and the frequency at which fresh straw bedding must be added increases. Experts suggest a minimum of 11 pounds of chopped straw per 1,000 pounds of animal weight.

"Don't skimp on the amount or frequency of bedding if you want clean cows, although bedding cost can be as much as 25 to 50 cents per cow per day," Jones said. "If producers find actual bedding costs to be higher than expected, they may cut back on bedding, and this usually results in dirtier cows.

"For small herds consisting of 30 to 40 cows, policing a well-bedded area daily by removing manure can help maintain cleaner cows and minimize the amount of bedding required to keep cows clean."

He said there also will be fewer incidences of infection in the dairy herd if cows are kept clean by maintaining clean, fresh bedding.

"Dairymen should have an area designed to store the removed manure," Jones said. "Any runoff from this area should be contained and not reach waterways."

"The Beef Housing and Equipment Handbook" includes plans for a bedded pack barn for replacement heifers that could be adapted to cows. This publication recommends that the width of the building shell allow room for a two- or three-row freestall platform.

The waterer for the bedded pack arrangement is placed adjacent to the bedded resting space.

"It is a good idea to place a fence around the sides of the waterer to create a barrier to prevent cows from splashing water into the bedding," Jones said. "You should allow cows to access the waterer only from the alley adjacent to the feed bunk."

The publication also provides details and options for a building shell for dairy or beef cattle. Options include roofing over the bedded area only, roofing over the bedded area and the cow alley or roofing over the entire area, including the feed platform.

These options increase the area per cow and improve the ability to manage feeding. Roofing over the cow resting and walking areas also eliminates the need to handle contaminated runoff from rainfall.

A low-cost option could be to develop a windbreak system on the north and west sides of a bedded space with drive-by feeding on the south side. "The Beef Housing and Equipment Handbook," has a conceptual plan that could be adapted for this configuration.

The option of no roof with a windbreak, cattle mounds and drive-by feeding is similar to feedlot operations. But, Jones said, the cost of collecting and irrigating lot runoff water should be considered.

"Dairy Freestall Housing and Equipment," also referred to as the Midwest Plan Service Publication No. 7, and "The Beef Housing and Equipment Handbook," also referred to as Midwest Plan Service publication No. 6, include additional information on barn design. Both publications can be purchased through the Midwest Plan Service online or by calling (800) 562-3618 or by sending e-mail to

The Midwest Plan Service is an organization of Extension and research agricultural engineers from 12 major universities, including Purdue.

Writer: Meggie Issler, (765) 494-8402;

Source: Don D. Jones, (765) 494-1178,

Ag Communications: (765) 494-2722; Beth Forbes,;

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