You might ask Farmer John, who lives 50 miles east of you, the question, “Do I put headlocks in my barn at the feedbunk?” He could answer yes, but Farmer Paul 70 miles to the west might say no. To each their own, but I can give insight as to what we think about headlocks on our farm and what we have done.
My answer to the question is yes and no. It shouldn’t be such a complicated question, but with my family, it has been that way since we built the freestall barn. Most of us agreed to not install headlocks at the feedbunk when we were milking 400 cows in a parlor. There were pros and cons to this. When we needed to work on a cow, we would have to separate her from the herd and place her into a chute area. By doing this, you weren’t necessarily disrupting the herd flow of all the cows at the bunk who would get locked in when working with one cow in a headlock system. There are many gates throughout the barn to pull a cow out, so it isn’t very hard to find the cow, walk her a few feet to a gate, and get her in the area needed.
At the same time, it takes labor to get a cow out of the pen. You are moving her out of her comfort zone. One must open and close gates rather than just walk down the feed alley to find the cow you need, get the job done, and let them go.
We took into consideration timid cows and wanted to make it easy for all to eat as much as they want, without putting their heads into a headlock. I am not knocking either system, though, because for a very long time I was the one out there wishing we had headlocks when getting a list of cows out of the barn to work on or put collars on them.
When we put in the automated milking system, we retrofitted our freestall barn to accommodate the robots. We also added on to the barn, which allowed us to put our close-up pregnant cows inside. We have a 40-stall area at the end filled with late-lactation cows, and we did end up installing headlocks in this one area. These cows are milked in the parlor twice daily.
We decided to do this in this one section of the barn to test out the headlocks, and I am sold on them to an extent, but not for the whole barn. See, it’s still a complicated answer. With swing down gates, I can move those cows I need to work on to the back side of the beds, especially when there are several in this area, and they will all lock up for easy access and efficiency. When I am done I can release them and swing up my gate so that the late-lactation cows can get back to their feed. This has come in handy, especially on a vet check day or vaccination day.
While we still enjoy having no headlocks for the majority of the barn, we appreciate our one small section of headlocks. We are always open to new ways and ideas, and I don’t ever think that one way works for all. The way our barn is set up shows that. Many different minds have come together to make our barn very unique, especially when it comes to cow comfort.
Mark and Caitlin Rodgers are dairy farmers in Dearing, Georgia. The Rodgers have a 400-cow dairy that averages 32,000 pounds of milk. Follow their family farm on Facebook at Hillcrest Farms Inc.