Loose housing is important despite costs

Herd manager Kevan Windridge believes the type of housing provided for his cows not only has a major impact on the amount of milk they yield but can have a bearing on their health and wellbeing.

Working out of a 200ha (500 acre) farm at Lower Swell, Stow-on-the-Wold in Gloucestershire, Mr Windridge runs a herd of 250 cows which calve all the year round. It is a modern unit – the cow housing, parlour and silage clamps were built on a greenfield site seven years ago when the land occupied by the old dairy unit was sold for redevelopment.

“We opted for a mixture of cubicles and loose bedding – about 75% of the area for cubicles and 25% for loose bedding,” explains Mr Windridge, who points out that cows, while following strong herd instincts, are also individuals with varied requirements.

The building, constructed with steel stanchions, side cladding and sheet roofing, is basically one of two halves, with the 24:24 herringbone parlour and collecting yard at its centre.

One side of the parlour features cubicle housing for 144 cows, comprised of four rows of 36 cubicles, each pair straddling a passageway cleaned eight times a day by an automatic scraping system. Mixed TMR rations are delivered to a central passageway to troughs on either side.

“This is the main area of the cows’ housing where those in their second week of lactation are placed and, all being well, remain until they are dried off,” he explains.

On the other side of the building there are two more rows of cubicles for 72 cows and then, occupying an identical size space, is the loose bed area.

Kevan Woodridge 

Kevan Windridge insists that cows housed in cubicles also need a loose bedding area – even though the running costs in terms of straw and muck handling is more expensive.

“We use the loose bed area for cows that are about to calve or have just calved and also for what I call the hospital cases – cows which may have sprained ligaments or have some other ailment that needs attention,” he says, adding that the cubicles on this side of the building form the transition area before the cows are transferred to the main group after calving and recovery.

So why the two systems? Mr Windridge points out that both have their advantages and disadvantages and these become more prevalent at different times of a cow’s status – whether she is in full milk, dried off or calving, for example.

However, a look at the costs makes for interesting reading. The first surprise is that, cow-for-cow, there is not a vast difference between the construction cost of a building which houses say, 250 cows in cubicles to one housing the same number on loose bedding, assuming the construction style is similar.

Sample figures prepared by building consultants ATSS reveal that on a level-surface greenfield site, a 244-cow cubicle housing would cost about £347,000 (£1422/cow) and a building to hold 247 cows on loose bedding would cost in the region of £333,000 (£1348/cow). These figures, which are examples, do not include storm water drainage, concrete aprons or electricity connection.

While the bedded area does not involve the cost of cubicle construction, it does need to be a larger building – 2972sq m rather than 2143sq m – and this means more stanchions and roofing is required. The cost of the loose-bedded building would have been significantly more if the actual bedded area had been concreted and not compacted chalk – only the feed passages and tractor ways are concreted.

Loose housing 

An area of loose bedding is essential but the cows are often dirtier than those in cubicles and may become infected with mastitis from pathogens breeding in the warm manure.

The second surprise is that the running costs of cubicles are lower than those for loose bedding.

“In terms of running costs, the cubicles, which have rubber mattresses, are given a daily dusting with sawdust powder – a job which takes one man about half an hour to complete – and the slurry is taken care of by the scrapers,” he says. “In contrast, loose housing requires fresh straw each day which takes two men an hour and means we also have to buy in about 200t of bedding straw each year.”

Kevan Woodridge

Slurry exiting one of the passageways – an automatic operation which occurs eight times a day. Contrast this with having to using a loader to clean out the loose bedding area every three weeks.

Costs are also incurred through the need to clean out the yards every three weeks and the muck needs to be handled at least twice before it is spread on the land.

“Despite all this work the cows are not as clean as those housed in cubicles,” he says. “There is also the added risk of cows being infected with harmful pathogens which breed freely in the warm bedding and can cause severe mastitis problems.”

Mr Windridge says that clean cows are, in his opinion, happier and healthier than those which have to live with congealed muck stuck to their flanks.

“Having said that, there is no doubt that there is a need for a straw bedded area – you can’t expect cows to calve or recover from ailments in cubicles,” he says. “And every herd has a few cows that cannot cope with cubicles.”

He concludes that selecting the correct housing system for cows must be seen as being an important part of the overall management of the herd and that it is essential to have an adequate area of loose bedding.