A round up of the best off-paddock barn solutions


2017 has been an eventful year with several trips, both overseas and locally to see how farmers are using different off-paddock options and the various successes they’ve noticed. Here’s a round up of the most common types we use in New Zealand plus some key takeaway facts from our travels.

Permanent Feedpad

Sometimes concreted, sometimes not, a permanent feedpad is a hard surface usually located near the farm dairy shed. This is an area specifically designed and used to feed out supplements and/or loafing of cattle. They are usually sloped for ease of cleaning and some feedpads also include a roof or side-walls.

The limitations of a feedpad include the need for some fairly significant earthworks to establish the right slope and they are a somewhat labour intensive option with the concrete pads requiring a lot of water and time to clean them. Standing off cows for long periods is not recommended on a feedpad and there is also the risk of injury or death due to confinement of the herd. 

However, farmers like feedpads as an off paddock solution because they help reduce cost of pasture maintenance and renovation and there’s less feed wastage. There is also the opportunity to establish an effluent system and recycle it as fertiliser.

Stand-off Pad

When it’s not suitable to have cows on pasture, a semi-permanent purpose built area such a stand-off pad could be the answer. Stand-off pads help reduce pugging and promote better management of nutrients. They are not typically a place to feed cows however.

Consider a stand-off pad addition to your farm system if you have issues with:

  • Soil structure or pugging
  • Damaged pasture
  • Slow pasture growth
  • Managing nutrient loss
  • Laneways are damaged from standing cows on them
  • Any problems with animal health and welfare due to current wet weather practices, or lameness and mastitis during or after wet times.

Loose Housed Barn – Soft Bedding

A fully covered facility, usually with plastic or steel roofing and ground covering of soft bedding material like straw, sawdust or woodchips. Usually there are no walls to aid ventilation and drying. Often used to house animals for longer periods such as during calving or over winter.

The benefits of loose-housed barns include minimizing pasture damage (while hopefully increasing pasture production), better utilization of feed, reduced lameness and a ‘happier’, healthier animal overall. As far as effluent management goes, this can be captured and repurposed, as can the used bedding materials.

Loose-housed barns do have some drawbacks such as needing a fair bit of capital to establish one and it can be a bit of a process with consents required. More supplementary feed is also required by having the cows off pasture.

Compost Barn

A type of soft bedding barn that is becoming quite popular is a compost barn. We saw a very good example of this on our Oregon trip. In a compost barn the cows lie on the compost under a covered roof. In a well-managed compost barn, the manure generates considerable heat, keeping the cows warm and dry. There is no smell and the udders stay much cleaner than in a conventional free-stall barn.

The compost beds need to be tilled at least once a day for aeration (twice is better) with straw added every few days and wood chips weekly.

The farm we saw using a compost barn in Oregon were very happy with its performance saying it was much cheaper to build than a free-stall barn and that their cow replacement rate had declined considerably.

Loose Housed Barn – Slatted Concrete

Similar to the above, this is another fully covered off-paddock and feed pad facility, typically with plastic over a frame roof and concrete slatted floor that covers a large effluent holding tank. To improve comfort for the cows the concrete is covered with bedding such as straw or rubber matting.

It can also help reduce urine build up in paddocks during autumn. This option is not suitable for long periods of time unless rubber matting is used, and not a great area for calving unless extra bedding material is provided to prevent leg damage.

Using a slatted concrete loose-housed barn has almost the same benefits and limitations of the soft bedding variant mentioned above with the added limitations of it not being suitable for long periods of use without rubber matting and a potential increase in lameness. It is not a suitable solution for calving without extra bedding material to prevent damage to calf legs. Another point to note is that the effluent tank must be large enough to hold effluent for a long time.

Freestall Barn

If you need to house dairy cattle for long periods this is the best option. Freestall barns, like those similar to Dairy Barn Systems, are a permanent structure that can be open air, partially or fully enclosed. They are fully covered with steel roofing and have a concrete floor area that is covered with softer surface materials and there are individual spaces for cows to lie down.

The main thing that holds farmers back from such a good investment is the reasonably high cost to build and establish.

Really though, the value a Dairy Barn System freestall barn adds to your business is phenomenal, offering many, many benefits:

  • pasture protection
  • increased production
  • control of feed levels
  • improved dairy herd health
  • opportunity to future proof effluent management against changing regulations

A Dairy Barn System is the best all weather building to manage herd comfort and minimise production downturns when it’s too hot or too cold. There are fewer production losses from having the herd travel to and from grazing, and a reduction in maintenance costs related to laneway surfacing and paddock gate entrances.

What other farmers are doing

From our trip in early 2017 to Tillamook, Oregon USA, we found that everyone sheds their cows in the winter to protect both the pastures and the animal. Many farmers have their cows in barns all of the year but there are still some who use a hybrid system of on and off-paddock solutions.

In the Netherlands paddocks are small and the rules around effluent are very strict. We’re lucky to not be so restricted in NZ. Dutch dairy farms need lots of effluent storage (for up to eight months) although we never noticed much smell as the barns are nice and airy.

Most farms house their cows in a barn for at least some of the time with farmers who have their cows outside for at least six hours per day for at least 120 days of the year receiving a price premium of 1.5 euros per litre, about 5% above the standard price. However, this ‘grass-fed’ milk is not kept separate from other milk and merely provides a good market story that Dutch cows lead a happy outdoor life.

Here at home we checked out some off-paddock solutions in the Waikato.

At one farm we visited they operated a compost barn. The farmers feed everything in the barn and have practically zero feed wastage. The replaced cow bedding is recycled and spread on the maize paddocks once a year.

What the owners have achieved with their barn is impressive with cow production increasing from 380kg milk solids/cow prior to the barn, to 550kg milk solids after, a staggering 44% increase!

At another farm they had a small freestall barn. The cows here looked to be in excellent health with the vet only ever needing to be called out to administer a Lepto vaccine.