UK dairy cows move into new comfy crib

By Aimee Nielson, UK College of Agriculture, Food & Environment

LEXINGTON, Ky. Dairy cows at the University of Kentucky recently had a chance to see their new barn for the first time. Almost immediately upon entering, the girls were having a good time exploring, running and jumping.

Officials at the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment recently finished the facility at the Coldstream Dairy Research Farm with cow comfort a top priority. The name for the new barn is the Dairy Housing, Teaching and Research Facility.

PHOTO: Steve Patton, UK Agricultural Communications Specialist

PHOTO: Steve Patton, UK Agricultural Communications Specialist

The herd previously lived in a traditional freestall barn built in the 1960s. Although those type facilities are still widely used, UK animal scientists wanted to try something new.

“This is a deep-bedded, loose-housing facility,” said Jeffrey Bewley, UK dairy specialist. “It doesn’t have any stalls, and the cows are free to roam around as they choose.”

The barn has a concrete, center lane to allow access for a tractor to come through and deliver feed. The cows are able to walk down separate lanes on each side of the barn, and they walk on rubber floors instead of concrete to access food and water. They will be able to rest in the open bedding areas between feedings and milkings.

“It’s a tall, open barn with large fans and soakers along the feed bunk for additional cow cooling. Compared to the previous facility, cows have more feed bunk and water space,” Bewley said. “This barn demonstrates the value of a cow-centered approach to dairy facility design. It’s designed to maximize cow comfort and provides an opportunity for improved heath. Farmers using it have seen improved feet and leg health. The UK cows seemed to instantly love the new design.”

The main reason for overall comfort improvement is the bedding. Bewley said it all starts with about 12 inches of sawdust. Cows naturally add to the sawdust with manure and urine. Twice a day, while the cows are out milking, the bedding gets mechanically stirred and mixed to form a surprisingly dry material with minimal odor where cows can rest.

“This is a very environmentally friendly concept,” Bewley said. “We are looking forward to seeing a reduced volume of waste material that has traditionally had to be removed daily from dairy facilities. It also reduces the odor coming from the dairy, and it will even reduce the fly population.”

“This is an important, alternative manure-management practice that allows flexibility in utilization of plant nutrients and organic matter for soil fertility,” said Joseph Taraba, specialist in the Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering.

Cows also have 24/7 access to six grooming brushes. The barn has curtains to protect cows from rain and colder temperatures. The curtains are automated, and a controller will raise and lower them based on ambient conditions. The facility will also incorporate multiple precision dairy technologies, which will allow UK animal scientists to understand the cow’s behavioral and physiological response to her physical environment in ways not possible a few years ago.

“This relatively new housing system has been one that has worked very well for Kentucky farmers, and we’ve established ourselves as a leader in this area,” said Richard Coffey, department chair for the UK Department of Animal and Food Sciences. “We are building this to understand this system better and to ultimately help Kentucky farmers. This could be a real solution for them in terms of cow comfort and health.”

The UK dairy has a milking herd of around 130 Holstein cows at full capacity, Each averages nearly 24,000 pounds of milk each year. The dairy farm facilities give undergraduate animal science students a chance to observe a functional dairy operation as part of their courses. The students get extensive hands-on experience in practical dairy management techniques. The farm hosts many dairy extension programs and demonstrations that allow Kentucky dairy farmers to learn about the latest management practices, technology and research.