Cubicles - Housing dairy cattle

Cubicle housing

Free-standing cubicle housing has been the most common method of housing dairy cattle in the UK since the 1960s. When cows are trained to use cubicles - preferably as young heifers - cubicle housing suits their requirements particularly well, and when well-managed this housing system can provide comfortable and clean conditions for them.

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 to accommodate them comfortably and efficiently. At the very worst, some cows may find these cubicles so uncomfortable that despite being 'cubicle-trained', they will choose to lie in dirty passageways and not in the cubicle at all.

Recommendations for cubicle size and design obviously vary according to breed requirements but cubicles should be a minimum of 2.36m in length by 1.15m in width for Holstein-Friesian cattle, with a preferable size of 2.43m × 1.22m. Some leeway in length may be allowed where cow cubicles are installed 'head to head' and the lunging space cows require when lying and standing-up can be to a degree shared between both rows of cubicles. Shorter cubicles can result in cows lying partly in dirty passageways and narrower cubicles in particular can lead to teat and leg 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, avoiding udder and teat contamination.

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. Effective handling of muck and slurry is crucial in keeping cows clean, and good ventilation is also important in cubicle housing to minimise high levels of humidity and condensation.

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.

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 mastitis-causing bacteria, but it does have disadvantages and requires daily raking and weekly topping-up. Paper, particularly paper pulp, can set hard and become uneven, and can heat-up when damp.

Bases 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 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 still require surface bedding materials.