Design efficient animal handling facilities

By Ken Bolton, UW-Extension Dairy & Livestock Agent, Jefferson County, Wis

Facilities should be designed to provide cow comfort, worker comfort and labor efficiency. It is very important to check building plans to assure they correctly support the ‘6-flows’: animal flow, people flow, equipment flow, feed flow, manure flow, and air flow. I’ll explore some of the considerations relating to these issues.
One of the main issues in the overall design of a new dairy facility is how milking animals will be sorted, handled and restrained for treatment. Animals need to be examined, vaccinated, artificially inseminated, pregnancy checked, given shots, etc. on a regular basis. The facility design and equipment selection influences work routines, labor requirements and animal stress levels associated with each of these activities. The dairy manager, when making these decisions, is faced with the typical use of capital versus labor trade-off; i.e. “pay me now or pay me later”.
Possible Systems
Most new parlor/freestall operations fall into one of two different types of systems. The “Animal Management Activities” of sorting, restraining and treating are often done in the freestall unit where the animals are housed (home based) or in some special area away from where they are normally housed (treatment area based).
Home based systems utilize self-locking manger stalls where cows lock themselves in place upon returning to a manger full of fresh feed after being milked. The self-locking feature is activated when the animal puts her head in a stanchion to eat. Treatment area based systems use sort gates to separate selected animals from their group as they leave the milking parlor. These sort gates can be manually controlled by the parlor operator or controlled automatically by a computer if animals are identified with electronic identification.
Home based systems
Dairy managers who select the home based system must evaluate the cost of the self-locking manger stall verses the cost of a separate treatment area, plus any labor savings over time. Producers report the following advantages of the home based system:
•    Less traumatic handling of cows since they are treated in familiar surroundings
•    Cows many eat their proper ration while waiting to be treated
•    No time is wasted returning animals to their lot after treatment because they are restrained in their own pen
•    Manger uprights prevent boss-cows from dominating a large section of the feed bunk
•    Large numbers of cows can be automatically restrained saving labor for routine tasks such as tail chalking
•    Manure from restrained animals is handled with normal procedures
•    Locking cows after milking allows teat spincter muscles to close before they lie down, thereby decreasing the possibility of mastitis
•    Parlor efficiency can be improved because flow of animals leaving the parlor does not need to be channeled through a narrow sort lane; and operator time to sort or move animals is avoided.
Among the concerns expressed by some producers is the extra noise generated by some brands of self locking stalls and how to find a specific animal since they are caught and restrained in a random order.

Treatment area based systems
With treatment area based systems, animals are sorted and taken to a special place to be restrained and treated. With this type of system the manager must be concerned with the length of time the animal will be away from its home pen and how it will be returned. Labor requirements, availability of feed and water, the effects of the additional stress placed on animals, plus handling of manure are some of the issues to consider when making this choice.
With treatment area based systems cows are often sorted as they leave the milking parlor. Cows need to be diverted through a narrow alley which allows them to be identified and diverted to a catch lane or catch pen. This animal selection process can be installed anywhere in the path as the animal returns home. If sorting is done manually, it should be done near the rear of the parlor to be easily viewed by the operator, but if automatic sorting is used, it should be located near the end of the return lane to improve cow movement. Producers report the following advantage to the treatment based system:
•    Less traumatic handling of cows since they are treated in a treatment facility versus in areas where the cow should feel most comfortable, i.e. milking, feeding, and resting area.
•    Convenience of having heard health supplies in close proximity to the animals requiring treatment. A herd health facility with attached vet room may also facilitate procedures such as foot trimming and surgery.
•    Only those cows needing attention are restrained versus the entire lot or herd.
•    Lower investment in a head gate and working chute than is required with head locks.

Once cows are sorted, they can be restrained and treated using a chute located in the catch lane, taken to a catch pen containing self-locking stalls or diverted to a palpation station. Palpation stations allow cows to be positioned in a herringbone fashion and restrained as they are given rectal examinations, are bred or given shots. Some producers have installed self-locks in only a portion of each housing area which can be gated off and used to treat groups of animals moved from the sort area. If this technique is used, expect animals to show a preference for eating in the section containing no self-locks.
Another thing to consider with this type of system is that animals returning from the sort areas, after being treated, may use the same traffic lanes as animals being milked. This can cause delays and additional labor to move gates, etc. to prevent mixing of groups.

Knowing how animal management activities will be preformed is very important when designing a parlor/freestall complex. Parlor complexes designed with return lanes on each side of the holding pen work well with home based systems, but not with treatment area based systems because of the need for two sort gates and two catch areas. If a treatment area based system is being designed, it would be wise to consider designing a parlor complex which allowed all animals to return on a single return lane.
Whichever system is selected, it is important to remember that both systems will work, but the effects on management, facility layout, work routines and labor requirements should be taken into consideration. Any additional initial costs should be prorated and added to the on-going labor requirement to arrive at an estimated annual cost of using each system. Putting a value on daily convenience is sometimes difficult, but substantial when considering the building of a structure that will last 10-20 years.
Phone the UW-Extension, Jefferson County Office at 920-674-7196 for more information.