Do Your Cows Need More Loafing Time?

Posted: January 21, 2008

M. Beth Grove,
Extension Agent, Dairy/Environment
November 22, 2002

As a newcomer to Lancaster, one of the most striking differences I’ve noticed betweenthis community and my home state is the large number of tie stall barns in the region. Whethercows are housed in a traditional tie stall barn or in a free-stall facility, many farmers allow themilking cows out onto small concrete pads or dirt/grass lots for short periods of time. These lotsare important management tools, allowing for easier heat detection and cow exercise time. Thedirt or grass paddocks also ease the stress of standing on concrete for long periods of time for allcows in a herd, whether tie stall or free stall.

Unfortunately, these lots can cause significant environmental problems. Heavy cowtraffic and constant use often cause the grass lots to become stripped of vegetation, except forunwanted weeds. Rain hitting the bare soil can cause significant runoff, resulting in soil erosion.Soil erosion is a serious environmental problem as it tears down soil surfaces - did you know ittakes more than 100 years to make one inch of topsoil? Moreover, cow lots usually collect highamounts of manure and urine, so surface water run-off can cause nitrogen and bacteria pollutionof surrounding waterways. Dirt lots can also cause difficult problems with environmentalmastitis during the winter and other periods of wet weather.There is an alternative for your dairy operation – a “Dairy Rotational Loafing LotManagement System”- originally developed in the late 1980s by Jerry Swisher, a dairy extensionagent in Virginia, in cooperation with the Virginia NRCS and local Soil Conservation District.This loafing lot system helps protect areas exposed to heavy livestock traffic from excessivemanure and soil losses, while allowing cows access to clean, cool grass for rest and exercise.

The first farm to install the system was the Roudabush Farm, located in Mt. Solon, Virginia. This 50-cow free-stall operation used a 10-acre field to create the trial system. In recent years, manyoperations around Virginia have installed a form of the loafing lot system on their farms.The “standard” loafing lot system consists of three grass paddocks and a sacrifice lot,sized to the herd. The paddocks allow the producer to rotate the herd through the lots as neededto maintain a grass cover. Travel lanes may connect the barn to the different lots; certain farmswith bedded pack or tie-stall barns may use their barns as the “sacrifice” area. The sacrifice areais where the herd is kept during wet or icy weather, or when the vegetative growth is insufficient.(Using the grass lots during these times would destroy or damage the sod.) The paddocks shouldbe created to allow cows to walk on the contour of the field, rather than up and down steepslopes.The establishment of a vigorous, thick sod is vital to withstand heavy livestock traffic.The grass paddocks in Virginia have been most successfully seeded with 50-75 lbs. /acreKentucky 31 tall fescue.

Although other grasses and mixes have been tried, nothing works as wellas the fescue to tie the soil down and withstand heavy cow traffic. (Remember, these paddocksare not for grazing, although they may be clipped for hay.) Soil types, paddock slope, exposure,time of planting are all important to establishing a good sod. The sacrifice lots and grasspaddocks should have adequate slope (3-10%) to provide for drainage.A good rule of thumb in sizing the rotational lots is to allow for 20-25 cows per acre ineach paddock; thus, a 50-cow herd would need three paddocks of two to three acres. In very tightsituations, or on farms with very fertile soil and good drainage, 30 cows or more per acre canwork with careful management. If a sacrifice lot is needed, farms should allow one acre for 50 to60 cows. It is a good idea, although not always practical, to provide water in the paddocks for theherd.What are the advantages of such as system? There are many, including:

  • Improved foot health – Concrete is very demanding on the hoof of a dairy cow - manure andurine in dirt lots and concrete pads will erode the soft tissue of the cow’s hoof. The grass lotsprovide exercise and help clean and dry the cow’s hoof between milking times.
  • Reduced soil and nutrient loss – The loafing lot system helps prevent nutrient runoff to aboveand below ground water sources, reducing soil loss. At the Roudabush Farm, soil loss figureswere calculated both before and after installation of the loafing lot system. Researchersdetermined a soil loss of 72 tons/acre/year for the bare 10-acre loafing area; this was reduced to aloss of only .43 tons/acre/year for the three grass paddocks after the system was in place.‘
  • Milk Quality and Cow Cleanliness – Cows that rest in clean, dry, grassy areas are less likelyto contract environmental mastitis, and they will come into the milk barn with cleaner udders.This will also help reduce cow prep time in the parlor.
  • Soil temperature – During times of heat stress, a grass sod is much cooler than dirt or concrete. Jerry Martin, who worked for years with the Pequea-Mill Creek project demonstration farm herein Lancaster, measured temperatures at soil level in various lots at that facility. On days with90°+ temperatures, the grass lots were an average of 9.3° cooler than the dirt sacrifice areas.
  • Mowing and Hay – The paddocks should be clipped to promote growth and vigor. In a goodseason, some producers will graze heifers or dry cows on the paddocks. Harvesting hay is also agood practice when possible as it “mines” the nutrients from the soils and makes good heifer hay.
  • Farm Appearance – What could be more beautiful than a herd of healthy cows on lush grassfields? Muddy lots and dirty cows send the wrong message to the public about agriculture anddairy farming.

For more information about this Dairy Loafing Lot system, you can contact Beth Groveat (717) 394-6851, or Jerry Martin, Senior Extension Associate with the Nutrient ManagementEducation Program in Harrisburg at (717) 783-9704.Sources: Swisher, J.M., “Nutrient Management Using Intensively Managed Loafing Lots on Dairies”1998; VA DCR, Pub. WP-4B, 2001This publication is available in alternative media on request. Penn State iscommitted to affirmative action, equal opportunity, and the diversity of itsworkforce.