Tie-stalls banned?

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Depends on who you talk to on the committee that made the rules

by Nelson Zandbergen
Courtesy of Farmers Forum

Just don’t call it a ban on new tie-stall dairy barns: The recently updated National Dairy Code requires that all newly built dairy barns “must allow daily, untethered freedom of movement and social interactions year-round.” That will be the rule as of April 1, 2024.

The Dairy Farmers of Canada insists a tie-stall barn can be constructed to meet the new standard in the latest Code of Practice For the Care and Handling of Dairy Cattle. “Nowhere in the code does it state that tie-stall barns are banned,” the DFC said in a statement by email.

“It is very possible to construct a new tie-stall barn with the ability for cows to have daily access to loose housing for some part of the day (pen, pasture, dry lot, etc),” the DFC said.

The Dairy Farmers of Ontario took the same position, asserting in a statement that a tie-stall barn could “meet the requirement” of a newly built barn.

But Humane Canada, which had a representative on the 18-person committee that developed the new Code, sees it differently.  “Once the code comes into effect … no new tie-stall barns can be built and all newly-built barns must allow for daily, year-round freedom of movement and social interactions,” Humane Canada spokesperson Kristina Koehn Merchant told Farmers Forum by email.

Merchant added that the code’s stipulations for new barns “cannot be met by tie-stall barns.”

When asked for his take on the key sentence mandating that cows be untethered daily in all new barns, Ontario dairy consultant Jack Rodenburg said it struck him as leaving no wiggle room to accommodate a new tie-stall barn.

Existing tie-stalls will be allowed to continue operating without alterations and subject to a new but less onerous untethered rule that comes into effect on April 1, 2027. These existing tie-stall operators’ cows will then have to be let loose at some point between calvings, such as between milkings in the summer or having them on a bedding pack or similar loose-housing area once dried off. Both practices are common, and Rodenburg estimated that less than 10 % of existing tie-stall farms keep all of their adult animals tied up in stalls all the time.

Tie-stall operators still comprise the bare majority of Ontario’s 3,273 dairy farms. According to the DFO’s 2022 stats, 54 % of producers are tie-stall versus 46 % free-stall. However, it’s believed the majority of dairy cattle in the Province are milked in a free-stall environment today because those operators tend to run larger herds than their tie-stall counterparts.

Ban or no ban, the new Code also states that farmers building new barns are “encouraged” to go the free-stall route, a trend that “aligns with research on consumer/public viewpoints and the long-term social sustainability of the industry.”

“Do I think a free-stall is better?” asked Chesterville-area dairy farmer Andrew DeJong, who operates a 40-head robotic free-stall herd with his father. “Not necessarily. I do prefer it myself, but I think as an industry we need to move in the direction that the consumer wants. Ultimately the consumer is going to heavily influence what we have to do because they are the customers.”

The DeJong farm was a tie-stall operation until six years ago, and the farmer said he had no regrets about switching to free-stall.

Brinston-area dairy farmer Anna Smail said that tie-stall barns have their advantages, including “individual cow comfort and cow care.”

Smail, who farms with her husband and son in a tie-stall setup, said they can tell right away if a cow is having a health problem, “and we can look after it right away. We hardly ever have a cow down that needs a special call for the vet.”

The cows benefit from having food and water right in front of them, and are pastured from May until the end of October. “And then they come in, and it’s amazing, the older cows, they know their stalls, they go in the barn, and pick out their stall.”

Her son, Rob, is a “cow person” and wouldn’t have it any other way, but she conceded that if the operation were ever to expand, it would likely go free-stall.

The biggest disadvantage, Smail said, is the extra labour needed to run a tie-stall herd and difficulty finding hired help. “If you have a tie-stall, you have to be there 24/7 or you have to put someone there, and if you’re the only one on the farm, there’s no relief.”

Her neighbour, dairy farmer John Westervelt, suggested that squeezing tie-stall operators out of the industry would make it that much harder for new dairy farmers to enter the field. “It’s one more detriment for a beginner to overcome,” said Westervelt, whose own farm features a robotic free-stall barn, after many years as a tie-stall operation.

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