Cubicle Design

Cubicle size and design is crucial, particularly as the average size of the dairy cow has increased over the last 40 years and many cubicles installed two or three decades ago are no longer of sufficient size or adequate design; some cows may find these cubicles so uncomfortable that they will spend considerably more time standing up - with the consequent extra pressure put on their feet risking mobility problems - or choose to lie in dirty passageways.

Recommendations for cubicle size and design obviously vary according to breed requirements but in general cubicles should be a minimum of 2.36m in length by 1.17m in width for Holstein-Friesian cattle, with a preferable size of 2.43m × 1.22m for larger cattle. Newer types of cubicle division allow a flexible sharing of forward and side lunge and lying space.

Shorter cubicles can result in cows standing or lying partly in dirty passageways - risking greater levels of slurry contact and thus higher exposure to infectious foot diseases such as digital dermatitis - and narrower cubicles in particular can lead to teat and leg injuries. Older cubicle designs with low side rails and rear legs have been identified as causing hock and pelvic injuries.

Apart from designing cubicles to be comfortable for cows - allowing them to be able to lie down and stand without difficulty and to be able to ruminate properly whilst lying down - care needs to be taken so that some control is maintained over where the cows lie within the cubicle by the correct placement of neck rails and brisket boards. This can provide an element of control over cows urinating and defecating in the passageway rather than on the cubicle bed itself, inherently encouraging clean conditions.

Kerb height and degree of slope are important design considerations. Cows tend to prefer lying uphill, and this will also allow urine and leaked milk to flow down and away from the cow. A 10cm slope from brisket to kerb should be considered as a maximum, as any steeper than this and the bedding is hard to retain. A kerb height maximum of 20cm will prevent scraped slurry being deposited on cubicle beds.

There should be an absolute minimum number of cubicles as there are cows in the herd and ideally 5% more cubicles than cows, so a choice of cubicle is available to lower-status cows not wishing to lie near dominant cows.

Cubicle bases

Cubicle bases ideally need to be clean, dry, cushioned surfaces with good grip - although they should be non-abrasive - and easily maintained and managed. The perfect cubicle base would be the equivalent of pasture on a dry summer's day; a comfortable cubicle is the prime focus area for managing cow comfort levels.

They can be constructed from deep-bedded softer materials like sand, paper and sawdust which all wear away to varying degrees, providing undesirable depressions where urine and leaked milk can pool. Deep sand is the most ideal material for cubicle beds, providing excellent cushioning characteristics, cow comfort and inert qualities which do not provide a particularly good medium for the growth of bacteria, but it does have disadvantages and requires daily raking and weekly topping-up.

Bases can be made from harder materials, such as concrete, bitumen and packed earth, clay or chalk. Earth, clay and chalk can become uneven and hard surfaces like concrete require mats or mattresses in order to be comfortable for cows; concrete is the most-widely used material for cubicle bases. Mats, made from a single thick piece or rubber, are durable but can become slippery and need to be securely fixed. Mattresses, with a covering sheet over a core of material, are more comfortable but more expensive and can tear and form dips in the surface. Water beds provide the highest levels of comfort but are very expensive. Mat or mattress placement is important; they should extend to the back of the cubicle directly above the kerb to avoid damaged hocks.

Hard cubicle bases and mats or mattresses require surface bedding materials.

Cubicle comfort levels

Apart from refusing to lie or stand in cubicles, other indications that cow comfort with regard to cubicles could be improved are:

  • The presence of rubs, scrapes and hair loss, or any other signs of cows hitting cubicle divisions.
  • Incidences of hock damage, including infections, swellings and abrasions.
  • Cows rising in an abnormal way, typically front-end-first.
  • A problem with sole ulcers within the herd.
  • A rise in the level of mobility problems during the housing period.