Nov. 7 2022 08:00 AM

From people to cows, no one performs their best when overcrowded, so the goal is to put up facilities that will meet the needs of today and tomorrow.

The small but growing city where I live has a big item on Tuesday’s ballot: a $45 million referendum to build a new intermediate school. This location would alleviate the overcrowding that is taking place at the current elementary school and allow the district to expand some of its early childhood educational offerings.

Supporters of the referendum have their eye on better learning and teaching environments and an opportunity to grow for the future, rather than being forced to make room later as enrollment climbs. The opposition doesn’t agree with the community taking on such a big financial commitment right now, when student numbers have been relatively stable and the current elementary school is less than a decade old.

How does a rather new school become overcrowded so quickly? Very simply, things changed. A big reason is that new goals for smaller class sizes suddenly put a space crunch on the building. Of course, a lot of factors go into the learning environment, but overcrowded classrooms can lead to less personalized instruction, greater noise and distractions, and more disciplinary problems. This affects both students and teachers.

Similar situations often happen on dairy farms. A new barn, built to accommodate the farm’s dairy herd, can often become overcrowded very quickly. Perhaps the new facilities lead to healthier, more productive cows that breed back better – creating a surplus of milking animals. Or, maybe a farm needs to generate more income to pay for that building investment, and one way to do that is to milk more cows.

Whatever the case may be, an overcrowded barn, much like an overcrowded school, can have some negative consequences. A breadth of research has shown what can happen when cows are stocked at 150%, or 1.5 cows per available stall. Cows in overstocked barns lie down fewer hours of the day, and reduced lying time has been associated with more lameness. If cows are crowded at the feedbunk, that has been shown to affect eating behavior and milking performance. Research has also indicated that crowded barns can negatively affect reproductive performance, somatic cell counts, and cow cleanliness.

Housing more cows than the facility was designed to hold can also lead to more time spent in the holding area or parlor, cutting the time available for eating and resting. It can also challenge a barn’s ventilation system and impact air quality. In addition, a growing milking herd often means more dry cows, more transition cows, more calves, and more heifers – which can put a strain on other areas of the dairy, too.

Whether it is a school or a barn, many factors go into the building design and space allocation. Both the habitants and the financials must be considered.

If you are putting up a new barn, you don’t want to find yourself in the same shoes as my local school district, already outgrowing a recent investment. It is better to do your homework and future planning now, before breaking ground on a new project. One really great resource available to dairy farmers comes from the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine’s Dairyland Initiative. At this website, you will find recommendations for everything from stall and alleyway dimensions to manure capacity needs and more. By following guidelines such as these and identifying your herd size goals, you can hopefully design a barn that will work for your cows now and into the future.

Abby Bauer

The author is the senior associate editor and covers animal health, dairy housing and equipment, and nutrient management. She grew up on a dairy farm near Plymouth, Wis., and previously served as a University of Wisconsin agricultural extension agent. She received a master’s degree from North Carolina State University and a bachelor’s from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.