Improving Cow Comfort in Tie-Stall Housing

Dairy December 20, 2013 Print Friendly and PDF

Introduction

Tie-stall housing was included on a recent list of factors affecting the welfare of dairy cows in a report by the Humane Society of the United States. The restrictive nature of this housing is the main reason that it is an area of interest. Although much of the current research focused on cow comfort examines cows housed within freestall barns, which house an increasing number of cows, a greater percentage of dairy farms in the United States are still housing their lactating cows in tie-stalls or stanchion stalls (50%) than in freestalls (30%), according to the most recent survey by the USDA (2002). Therefore, it remains important to investigate ways to improve the welfare of cows housed in tie-stalls.

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Opportunities to Improve Tie-Stall Design

A recent study evaluated the effect that the style of partition used to separate tie-stall housed cows had on their cleanliness and lying behavior (Aland et al., 2009). The treatments included two different styles of stall partition that are both alternatives to the traditional metal dividers often found in North American tie-stall barns. These stalls with partitions were compared against non-separated stalls, which served as a control. The treatment partitions were comprised of a nylon strap that either extended straight down to an attachment point on the floor or attached to the floor in an inverted Y-shape.

These response variables were evaluated to assess the response to the partitions relative to stalls that contained no partition: 

  • Stall cleanliness (defined as the cross contamination of a stall by the neighboring cow’s urine or manure): For cleanliness, the inclusion of a partition reduced the number of times a cow defecated in its neighbors' stall but did not affect the number of times a cow urinated in its neighbors' stall.
  • Position of the cows within the tie-stall: When housed with a partition, cows altered their posture within the stall and spent less time standing at a 45° angle to the feed bunk compared to the controls.
  • Total lying time per day: Mean daily lying time was unaffected.

These results demonstrated the potential of partitions to improve cow health. First, the use of treatment partitions reduced the amount of manure coming into the stall from a neighboring cow. This may reduce lameness by lowering the amount of manure that a cow stands in. It may also reduce the potential for environmental mastitis by reducing the amount of manure that the cows came in contact with. Finally, preventing cows from standing at an angle may reduce teat injuries and from entering the resting space of their neighbor. In terms of lying comfort, the partitions had no effect, either positive or negative, on the daily lying times of these cows.

Effect of Tie-Stall Base on Cow Comfort

Similar to the tie-stall partition, the flooring used within the tie-stall can have a major effect on how a dairy cow behaves within the stall and how comfortable the environment is within the stall. A study by Rushen et al. (2007) evaluated the influence of flooring type (concrete versus rubber mats) in tie-stalls on time budgets and occurrence of injury. Twenty-two mature cows were moved from calving pens into the study housing 14 days after calving. The concrete and rubber flooring was distributed evenly across the two styles of tie-stalls included in the study, and all tie-stalls were covered with approximately 1 lb of straw daily. The behavior of the cows was determined using video data recorded for 24 hours every other week through the 16-week study. The cows were visually examined for the presence of cuts, abrasions, or hair loss, and the knees and hocks were manually manipulated on a weekly basis to determine if noticeable swelling was present.

Several behavioral changes were evident for the two flooring types. First, the cows with rubber mats tended to spend more time lying. Additionally, the time spent lying in the rubber-floored stalls resulted from more frequent bouts that were shorter in duration. Second, the total time spent standing was reduced for the cows on the rubber flooring, and the same pattern of more frequent, shorter bouts was observed. These results indicate that these stalls were more comfortable for the cows to shift from standing to lying, or vice versa. Lastly, the reduction of total standing time for the cows with rubber mats was due to a decrease in idle standing only; the time spent eating while standing was the same for both groups. This demonstrates that the cows provided with rubber mats were utilizing their time more effectively by standing only when necessary for feeding and then lying down to rest when finished.

The occurrence of cuts or abrasions was similar for both groups, indicating that the straw bedding was sufficient to prevent injury. The rubber mats tended to reduce swelling in the knees and hocks; however, the difference between groups became significant when the analysis was focused on the front knees. This is most likely the explanation for the unwillingness of the cows housed on concrete to change positions. The swelling would likely have resulted from the impact of lying down, and the pain from the injury could make shifting to a standing position difficult.

The results of this study demonstrate that the welfare of cows housed in tie-stalls can be improved by the inclusion of a softer flooring material underneath the bedding. These improvements may also help increase the productivity of dairy cows housed in tie-stall barns. Furthermore, the positive effects on the behavior of these cows and the reduction in the severity of injuries may help alleviate some of the negative perception of tie-stall housing for dairy cows.

Bedding Management Can Improve Tie-Stall Comfort

As demonstrated by Rushen et al. (2007), a sufficient quantity of bedding can help reduce the occurrence of injuries. Additionally, in a series of three experiments that investigated the effect of various amounts of sawdust or straw bedding, Tucker et al. (2009) demonstrated that the total amount of bedding can influence the lying behavior of dairy cows housed in tie-stalls. All experiments involved 12 cows, a mix of mature cows and heifers, housed in a tie-stall facility, that were milked twice daily, fed once daily in the morning, and released for 1.5 hours of exercise once daily.

In the first experiment, cows were provided approximately 7, 20, 33, or 52 lb of sawdust bedding per day. Increasing the amount of bedding did not alter the duration of lying bouts, the number of bouts per day, or milk production. However, the average lying time was increased by 1.1 hours per day when the bedding amounts were increased. In Experiment 2, cows were provided 2.2, 7, 11, or 20 lb of straw bedding per day. Similar to Experiment 1, the amount of bedding did not affect average duration of a lying bout or milk production; however, the number of lying bouts per day and the average daily lying time increased as the amount of bedding increased. In Experiment 3, 1.1, 2.2, 4.4, or 6.6 lb of straw bedding were provided. The authors described this as an insufficient amount of bedding to cover the base of the stall at all treatment levels. In this experiment, none of the four response variables were affected by the treatment.

Increasing the amount of bedding increased lying times, and the increased compressibility may reduce occurrence of injuries to the front knees that can occur when a cow is transitioning from standing to lying. Again, increased lying times were previously associated with increased productivity in freestall housed cows.

Assessing Locomotion Scores of Tie-Stall Housed Cows

Despite the increased awareness of the detrimental effects of lameness on productivity and welfare, little improvement has been made in the prevalence of this condition over the past decade. Recent research has estimated that between 20% and 30% of all cows housed in either tie-stall or freestall barns are clinically lame. Additionally, it has been estimated that over 50% of cows may have sole injuries that do not result in clinical lameness but may still cause some pain or discomfort.

Locomotion scores are a reliable means to access lameness rates in freestall facilities; however, that system of scoring may not be practical for third-party assessments of cows housed in tie-stall facilities. Researchers from the United Kingdom, Germany, and Austria collaborated in the development of a stall-based scoring system that could be used to evaluate tie-stall housed cows (Leach et al., 2009).

The initial step for the development of their stall-based assessment was to identify five behaviors that may be associated with lameness. These behaviors were:

  1. Constant shifting of weight from one foot to the other
  2. Rotating the foot beyond the midline of the body
  3. Standing on the curb of the stall
  4. Refusing to bear weight on a foot while standing stationary
  5. Refusing to bear weight on a foot while moving laterally

The presence of these factors was determined using the following standard procedure:

  1. Cows that were lying down were made to stand up (any lying cow was not evaluated until she had stood for a minimum of 3 minutes).
  2. The standing posture of the cow was evaluated for any of the previously identified behavioral factors.
  3. The cow was then made to move from side to side and evaluated while in motion.
  4. The standing posture was reevaluated after the lateral movement.
  5. Any cow demonstrating at least two of the behavioral indicators at any point in the evaluation was scored as lame.

During this study, cows were evaluated by two observers, and the scoring (lame versus not lame) of these observers agreed 91% of the time. This suggests this method results in a highly repeatable score. After the stall-based assessment was conducted, the cows were released and given a conventional locomotion score. The agreement of cows identified as lame versus not lame between the two scoring systems was 81% and 78% for the two observers. Mildly lame cows (as determined by the locomotion score) were the most difficult to detect in the stall-based system and were responsible for the majority of the disagreement between the two methods. The ability of the stall-based assessment to find all lame cows within a herd was limited (only about 61% of the cows that were later scored as moderately lame or lame were identified). However, when only lame cows (those receiving a score of 4 or 5 in a 5-point locomotion score) were included in the analysis, over 80% of those cows were identified while in the stall. Furthermore, the stall-based system resulted in cows being incorrectly identified as lame less than 7% of the time.

The stall-based system for identifying lame cows developed by these researchers can be utilized as a means to conveniently assess the lameness prevalence in tie-stall barns. It should be recognized that the number of moderately lame cows would most likely be underreported. In spite of this, the ability to accurately identify more severely lame cows, without falsely including nonlame cows, indicates that farmers, third-party auditors, or consultants should consider utilizing this assessment tool.

Author Information

Peter Krawczel

University of Tennessee, Department of Animal Science

References

Aland, A., L. Lidfors, and I. Ekesbo. 2009. Impact of elastic stall partitions on tied dairy cows’ behavior and stall cleanliness. Prev. Vet. Med. 92:154-157.

Leach, K.A., S. Dippel, J. Huber, S. March, C. Winckler, and H.R. Whay. 2009. Assessing lameness in cows kept in tie-stalls. J. Dairy Sci. 92:1567-1574.

Tucker, C.B., D.M. Weary, M.A.G. von Keyserlingk, and K.A. Beauchemin. 2009. Cow comfort in tie-stalls: Increased depth of shavings or straw bedding increases lying time. J. Dairy Sci. 92:2684-2690.

Rushen, J., D. Haley, and A.M. de Passille. 2007. Effect of softer flooring in tie-stalls on resting behavior and leg injuries of lactating cows. J. Dairy Sci. 90:3647-3651.

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.