Cold Weather Shelter for Grazing Dairy Cattle

Posted: January 21, 2008

Pasture offers the advantages of space, fresh air, and a confident footing. These things should not be compromised in shelter.

Dan F. McFarland,
Capital Region Extension Agricultural Engineer,
York, Pa.
October 11, 2002

A few years ago, I worked with some long time dairy grazers to expand their stall barn. Grazing
proved very successful for them. Their experience indicated that when the cows were on pasture
production increased, animal health improved and injuries were greatly reduced compared to
when the cows were confined. In order to expand the milking herd they needed more room, so
they decided to extend the building, install new stalls and renovate the existing ones. Along with
the stalls, the ventilation system, feeding area and water system were also improved. Not too
long into the cold weather season they noticed that milk production did not drop, animal health
remained good, and injuries were minimal.

Pasture offers the advantages of space, fresh air, and a confident footing. These things should
not be compromised in shelter. Our climate allows the opportunity for producers to take
advantage of grazing for a significant portion of the calendar year. However, there are times
when cows should be protected from weather extremes, and pastures protected from cows.
Therefore, it is important to develop suitable shelter to protect the herd from weather extremes,
maintain good animal health, and not compromise the benefits gained from grazing.
Producers are often disappointed when I explain that the space requirements for seasonal
confinement are similar to those for total confinement. Space requirements are determined by
the cows --- not the calendar. Overcrowded space and/or uncomfortable stalls will soon lead to
dirty conditions and increased injuries.

Loose housing or bedded packs have become a popular alternative for some grazing systems.
Approximately 80 to 100 ft2 of bedded space per cow should be provided. This does not include
the area adjacent to the feeding area. Producers find that it is difficult to keep their cows clean
when less space is provided. Generous amounts of sawdust, shavings, straw, paper, and/or corn
fodder are needed to insure comfort and cleanliness.

Naturally ventilated buildings should be oriented to block prevailing winds during cold weather
and provide adequate shade during hot weather. Side walls should be of adequate height (12’ to
14’) and have the ability to be opened 75 to 100% during warm weather and closed to block cold
winds. Gable roof systems should have a ridge opening of 2 to 3 in per 10 ft of building width.
Bank barns converted to bedded pack shelters typically require fans to insure an adequate air
exchange in the animal area.

Two or more water stations are required per group. Water access should be convenient, but
placed so that cows do not have access to while standing on the bedded pack since the area
around waterers can be sloppy. Providing adequate feed space is also important. Producers
using TMR’s find that 18” of bunk space per cow is adequate as long as all cows have enough
time to get to the feeding area. If all cows must eat at once, then 27” to 30” per cow is preferred.
When building a new structure consider dimensions that will allow a bedded pack to be easily
converted to freestalls (or vice-versa) in the future.

Common obstacles to good production and health in stall barns are the stall structure and
ventilation. In most cases, stalls can be modified to provide adequate space for the cows to
recline, rise, and rest comfortable without striking the stall structure or interfering with adjacent
cows. Comfort and footing of the stall bed can be improved by adding more bedding or adding a
more resilient surface, like a rubber or water filled mattress.

Improving the ventilation can be a challenge, but well worth the effort. The importance of fresh,
dry air cannot be understated. Good air quality is one of the main benefits of grazing, why
compromise it during weather extremes? Properly sized, installed and managed fans, inlets, and
controls can provide an excellent air exchange to remove moisture, gases, dust and other
pollutants during all seasons. Tunnel ventilation is an excellent hot weather system, but is not
suitable for cooler weather. The rapid air exchange and breeze at lower temperatures can
increase stress on dairy cows. Reducing the capacity of a tunnel ventilation system during cooler
weather usually results in non-uniform temperatures and air quality in the animal space. Your
nose and eyes can be a good monitor of ventilation system performance. If the air quality is
undesirable, take the necessary steps to improve it.

Seasonal confinement of dairy cows should not compromise animal health and production.
Good shelter design and management will provide a dry, comfortable resting area, good
ventilation, good access to feed and water, and a confident footing. Don’t let the shelter
available to grazing herds during cold (and hot) have a negative affect on production and

For more information on cow comfort and shelter design contact Dan McFarland at 717-840-