Organic Dairy Herd Health: Effect of Housing and Cow Comfort on Health and Disease

eOrganic author:

Linda Tikofsky


Adapted with permission from: Mendenhall, K. (ed.) 2009. The organic dairy handbook: a comprehensive guide for the transition and beyond. Northeast Organic Farming Asociation of New York, Inc., Cobleskill, NY. (Available online at:, verified 18 July 2012).

Animal Housing

Housing for adult cattle varies with climate, finances, and farmer preference. Housing on organic farms varies from year-round housing on pasture with run-in sheds or woodlots for shelter to freestalls and greenhouse constructions. Certain cow comfort basics must be met in all housing designs. Discomfort, dirty conditions, and poor ventilation will stress the immune system and cows will be more susceptible to disease. During the grazing season, all cattle over the age of six months must have pasture, and during the non grazing season, they must have daily outdoor access and exercise unless one of the exemptions in §205.239 (b) & (c) applies.


Good air exchange is essential. Fresh air should enter the barn and move warmer, contaminated air out. The temperature difference between the outside and inside during winter months should be no more than 10°F.


Dry pasture that is free of small stones is the ideal surface for cow health and lameness prevention. Standing on hard concrete all day can cause hoof damage and can strain the cows’ feet and legs. Cows sometimes do spend the majority of the day indoors, for example, during the harsh Northeast winters. Avoid slick concrete flooring so cows do not slip and can feel secure enough to express natural heats. Concrete floors can be grooved to provide better traction (grooves should be 0.5 inches deep, 0.5 inches wide and 2 to 3 inches apart) or rubber mats may be used for comfort and to provide good footing.

Access to Feed and Water

Cows housed in tiestall and stanchions have their own assigned bunk space for feeding. In freestall situations, at least 30 inches of bunk space per cow is recommended. If there is only 16 to 24 inches of bunk space per cow, the risk for fresh cow disease increases.

Daily water requirements for dairy cows vary with weather, type and quality of feed, and production. A 1,500 pound cow producing 40 pounds of milk on a 40°F day requires 18 gallons of water per day; on a 80°F day, she will need 25.5 gallons of water per day. The recommended water trough size (if individual waterers are not available) is 3 inches per cow.


Cows prefer to spend much of their day lying down (12 to 14 hours). Blood flow through the udder increases by 30% when cows are resting, thereby increasing milk production. Time spent lying in stalls also increases rumination and rests the cows’ feet and legs.

Properly designed stalls should allow cows to have the freedom to lunge and move forward and side to side while rising and lying down, but they should not be so wide that cows lie improperly in stalls and cleanliness is an issue. Stalls should be properly sized for both breed size and age of cattle (heifers require smaller stalls than adult cattle). Guidelines for sizing stalls (both tie- and freestalls) are included in Table 1.

Table 1. Recommended Dimensions for Tiestall and Freestall Facilities
Stall Type Dimension Ratio & Reference Body Dimension Average Holstein
Tiestall Facilities Bed length 1.2 x rump height 1.2 x 60 = 72"
Tie rail height above cow's feet 0.8 x rump height 0.8 x 60 = 48"
Stall width 2.0 hook bone width 2.0 x 26 = 52"
Freestall Facilities Stall length from curb to solid front 2.0 x rump height 2.0 x 60 = 120"
Stall length for open front (head to head) 1.8 x rump height 1.8 x 60 = 108"
Bed length (imprint length) 1.2 x rump height 1.2 x 60 = 72"
Neck rail height above cow's feet 0.83 x rump height 0.83 x 60 = 50"
Neck rail forward location (bed length) 1.2 x rump height 1.2 x 60 = 72"
Stall width (loops on center) 2.0 hook bone width 2.0 x 26 = 52"
Space between brisket board and loop Foot width 5"
Brisket board location (from curb) 1.1 x rump height 1.1 x 60 = 66"
Source: OMAFRA, 2007.

Bedded Packs

Bedded and composted bedded packs are increasing in popularity. Loose housing barns provide cows with one large resting area rather than individual stalls so these types of facilities are also quite economical. Bedded packs canprovide great cow comfort and reduced lameness when managed properly. Ideally, a 100 square foot area (or more) is allotted per cow. Sawdust, straw, or shavings are the most common bedding materials for bedded packs.

Good management practices are essential to maintain cleanliness and to reduce bacterial growth in packs. In compost bedded packs, the top 10 to 12 inches of bedding should be stirred twice daily while the cows are being milked. Fresh bedding should be added daily so the top surface (which is in contact with the cow) remains clean and dry.


Bedding is essential for cow comfort and cleanliness and falls into two categories (organic and inorganic). The choice of bedding for your farm depends on your manure handling system, availability, price, and personal preference. Remember, 205.239 (a) (2) requires that if roughages are used as bedding, they must be certified organic. It is also important to remember that with inorganic bedding, bacterial numbers can soar into the millions if it is contaminated with manure, milk, feed, or urine. Any bedding can be acceptable if the stalls are groomed regularly and fresh clean bedding is added on a regular basis. Table 2. reviews the advantages and disadvantages of commonly available bedding materials.

Table 2. Advantages and disadvantages of commonly used bedding materials.
Bedding Type Class Advantages Disadvantages
Straw or Hay* Organic • Easily accessible, absorbent.
• Works with most manure systems.
• Less expensive than others.
• Very comfortable if sufficient amounts used.
• Can be grown on the farm.
• Good nutrient source for bacteria once wet.
• Promotes Strep mastitis bacteria and flies.
Sawdust/shavings (non pressure-treated wood) Organic • Easily sourced in Northeast.
• Works with most manure systems.
• Low to moderate expense.
• Supports bacterial growth when wet.
• Associated with Klebsiella mastitis.
Newsprint Organic • Easily accessible.
• Inexpensive.
• Can work with most manure systems.
• Supports bacterial growth.
• Glossy/colored inserts must be removed.
Rice Hulls* Organic • Inexpensive.
• Very dry.
• Work well with manure systems.
• Supports growth of mastitis bacteria when wet.
Manure Solids Organic • Readily available.
• Inexpensive.
• Reduces waste to be spread.
• Requires investment in drying or composting system.
• Comfortable.
• Can be made on the farm.
• Easily supports bacterial growth when wet.
Old Feed (TMR, silage, refusals)* Organic • Readily available
• Inexpensive
• Supports bacterial growth
• Contaminated with yeast/mold, leading to increased yeast mastitis
Sand Inorganic • Available
• Does not support bacterial growth unless contaminated
• Excellent cow comfort
• All manure systems may not handle well
 Gypsum Inorganic • Does not support bacterial growth • Decreased cow comfort
• Must not come from recycled wallboard
 *Must be certified organic   


Well-maintained pastures are nature’s perfect housing, complete with good footing, ventilation, and sunshine to enhance animal health. It is no wonder then that graziers refer to it as "Dr. Green." On the other hand, poorly maintained pastures can have a severe negative impact on animal health and increase the risk of disease. Care should be taken to fence off wet areas (creeks, ponds, and swampy sections) so that cows do not stand in water or lie in mud. Shaded pasture areas can become contaminated and harbor millions of mastitis-causing bacteria if pastures are not rotated.

Evaluating Cow Comfort

You can assess cow comfort on your farm by using the NYSCHAP hock-scoring guide. More than 95% of cows should have normal hocks, without swellings or abrasions. If more than 5% of the herd has abnormal hocks, you should reassess your housing, bedding, and pasture conditions and identify areas of improvement.

Also in This Series

This article is part of a series discussing organic dairy herd health. For more information, see the following articles.

References and Citations


Published February 7, 2013

This is an eOrganic article and was reviewed for compliance with National Organic Program regulations by members of the eOrganic community. Always check with your organic certification agency before adopting new practices or using new materials. For more information, refer to eOrganic's articles on organic certification.