Dairy barns of the future will likely focus on natural cow behaviors, climate control, reducing emissions, reusing waste streams, manure quality and capital efficiency, according to Wageningen University & Research (WUR) in the Netherlands.
WUR reported that an international team of scientists led by Paul Galama with Wageningen Livestock Research has mapped the possibilities.
The factors mentioned, including cow behavior, reusing waste streams and reducing emissions, are mutually dependent, WUR said. That is why it is essential to balance the different issues, the scientists said.
A larger barn is costlier, has a more significant impact on the environment and may result in increased emissions. Freestall barns appear to enhance the well-being of animals by offering plenty of space and increasing cows' life span, and they have lower ammonia emissions, WUR said.
Galama explained that the primary criterium for many dairy farmers is: How much space do I wish to offer my cattle? In a freestall dairy, the cow has approximately four times as much room to lie down as in a cubicle barn. If the cows are put to pasture full time, this space may even be used for horticulture or for keeping pigs or poultry — a multifunctional building.
A second criterium is which organic fertilizers are suited to the farm, Galama said. Floors that separate manure into feces and urine allow for lower emissions and more precise fertilization of pastures and arable land. Freewalk barns with woodchips, sawdust, elephant grass or seagrass as bedding allow for the production of manure with a high level of organic content, he added.
The main challenge is to view the barn as an integral part of the entrepreneurial system. After all, the barn affects the entire operation and the manure chain of the barn, storage and use. It must fit within the view on nature management, closing cycles, precision agriculture and society values, Galama said.
There are still numerous technical issues to be overcome, he added, listing low-emission flooring, manure removal and storage, alternative freewalk bedding, sustainable building materials, flaring of methane gas or floating barns with optimal usage of waste streams from nearby urban areas.
Galama said he considers the “multi-climate” building an interesting challenge. The idea is based on capturing the air released in the freewalk barn, cubicle barn or manure basements and blowing this through the bedding in the freewalk area. Thus, the freewalk area is used as a biofilter.
WUR said the researchers believe that combining barn systems and innovations is the way forward.
"There are already many techniques available to reduce emissions in existing barns," Galama said. "More physical space for natural animal behavior is a win-win for both farmers and animals, we expect."
In an article published in the Journal of Dairy Science, the researchers extensively discuss the differences, advantages and disadvantages of different barn designs. The research was funded by the European Union Horizon 2020 program.