Typically, the free stall is designed to encourage the cow to lie down in a specific location and to use the stall in such a way that manure does not soil the stall. Unfortunately, the more restrictive the free stall becomes, the less comfortable it is for the cow.Cows prefer wider (46 - 50 inches) stalls, likely because they have less contact with the partitions. Cows also spend more time standing with all four legs in the wider stalls, reducing the time they spend perching and standing fully on concrete flooring typically found elsewhere in the barn.
Removing the neck rail, or moving it higher (50 inches) and further from the curb (70 - 75 inches) increases the time cows spend standing fully inside the stall and reduces the risk of lameness.
Stalls should provide a clean, comfortable area for cows to lie down.However, stall cleanliness alone is a poor measure of stall design. Free stalls that are more comfortable have higher occupancy rates and are therefore more likely to contain feces. Thus, well-used stalls require more stall maintenance, just like other equipment used on the farm.
Stall use can also be affected by stall layout. Some stalls, particularly those farther from the feed bunk and on the periphery, are less desirable to cows, perhaps because cows need to walk farther or because they have to navigate past certain physical (e.g. narrow alleys) or social (e.g. dominant cows) obstacles on their way to the more distant stalls. What looks like a 1:1 cow-to-stall stocking density may seem considerably worse to the cows if some stalls are unacceptable.
Cows need space at the feed bunk. Overcrowding at the feeder increases competition and reduces the time that cows spend feeding. These effects are greatest for subordinate cows, including cows that are lame or feeling ill. A minimum of 24 inches of space per cow is recommended.This value should be increased to at least 30 inches during the transition period and in the sick pen. Overstocking at the feed bunk can also increase the time cows spend standing on concrete waiting to access to feed.