The Milk and Human Kindness: Plans for an Old Style Wooden Stanchion Floor
by Suzanne Lupien of Thetford Center, VT
A sunny dry milking stall is enormously important for you and your cow, and constructing an old fashioned wooden floor, manger and stanchion frame needn’t be expensive, difficult or very time consuming. I much prefer wood to concrete, and so does your cow. Standing on concrete is one of the numerous hardships of being a modern cow. A system made entirely of wood, preferably wood from your own farm, provides gentle comfort for your cow, in stark contrast to the clanging of steel and the harshness of concrete. So here you have a simple outline of how to build your own, dimensions for a jersey or other small cow. Sturdy, simple, practical plans.
The basic needs that we are addressing here are as follows: To create a sunny, airy (not drafty), dry, convenient, accessible place to bring in our cow or cows, with or without calves, to be comfortably and easily secured for milking and other purposes such as vet checks, AI breeding, etc. where both you and your cow feel secure and content. A place that is functional, clean, warm and inviting in every way. There will be dozens of instances beyond the daily milking where the “tie-up” will be extremely useful. Indeed, I’ve wondered time and again what I would do without it.
I will describe to you the tie-up at my old farm which was perfect in every way from my point of view, summer and winter. Then I will focus on the construction plan. From this you will be able to build your own. Finally I’ll address stanchion hardware.
The eight cow tie-up at Goodrich 4 Corners was built into the east side of the early (1789) English barn hewn from hemlock and chestnut, and set on the customary dry stone foundation. Because it had to be built into the existing timber frame with its own proportional and structural constraints, the ceiling height is rather low, doorways quite low, requiring most adults to bend when crossing the threshold.
It was a long rectangular room running the length of the gable end of the barn which stood very close to the road. It was probably built around 1920, by a man skillfull with chisel and saw, and it was sheathed in tongue and groove pine, planed, the trim and detail better than many modern house interiors. Windows all along the outside wall, waist high, and white washed floor to ceiling, this white wash being renewed semi-annually in accordance with the law for cow houses in former times. It was thus, bathed in light. For the first four years I had that farm, Clayton Warner, the last whitewash man used to come and spray the barn for me – we’d spend a good two days sweeping and scraping it ready – he’d come over the mountain through Middlebury Gap, and he wasn’t hurrying, had an old Chevy truck with a tank of white wash on the back.
The cows stood with their heads toward the drive floor for feeding purposes; hence their backsides got the sun streaming in the windows by seven in the morning, a very good thing on frigid winter days. Each cow had her own manger, with partitions separating one manger from the next. This made for peaceful and equitable feeding. There were four tongue and groove bead board shutters running the full length of the drive floor side, hung horizontally, hinged at the bottom, folding down, waist height, to be opened for feeding and fresh air. Closed in cold weather, eight cows would raise the temperature considerably. There was an ingenious fresh air system built into the outside wall which brought fresh air from outside and sent the stale air up and out through a wooden shaft. This contributed greatly to the cow’s well-being. Being cooped up like that was unavoidable in a harsh New England winter in former times, and that could be deadly for a cow’s respiratory system.
The deck upon which the cows stood was planked with heavy hemlock planking, a good two inches or better, the planks laid in the direction the deck would be scraped clean, and this deck was pitched very slightly toward the wooden gutter behind the cows, and this gutter was also pitched just a little so the urine would collect down at the end where presumably the wheelbarrow stood at cleaning time. Behind the gutter was a wooden walkway, boarded in the direction of cow travel, lengthways which again made for easy cleaning.
The doorway in this photograph leads down a wooden ramp into the barn yard. Another door, just beyond the stanchion floor, to the right, leads to the drive floor with the loose hay mow just on the other side of the drive floor, and comprising the main part of the barn. Above the cows was a large storage area, either for feed or equipment in winter. The doorway to the drive floor was nice and wide, so it was very convenient to let the cows pass through there on their way to pasture after milking.
Each morning after milking the cows would go out, the gutter would be shoveled out and the stale bedding would be scraped into the gutter to absorb any residual liquid. The gutter would then be emptied a second time, if necessary. Mangers would be swept clean, the deck re-bedded with pine sawdust, all ready for the next milking. If barn chores were completed early enough, the morning sun streaming in from the windows would do its part to sweeten up the place.
The deck may seem short to you but it must be short enough just, so the manure will land in the gutter and not on the deck. When considering how a cow gathers her legs under her when she lies down, and the way her hind end hangs down a bit, the trim dimensions of the deck start to make sense. So for each cow allow 58” long and 4 feet wide.
To build a stanchion floor like this you need a source of rough sawn lumber. Good quality full 2” hemlock would be my choice, here in New England. Choose for strength and durability.
A few hints:
A) If you are building on concrete you can use the concrete for the gutter. You will of course need concrete nails or other appropriate fasteners. If you are building on a good wood floor you can do the same as far as the gutter is concerned. However if the boarding is running opposite to the length of the gutter, you will want to lay a good one inch board inside the gutter so you won’t be tearing up the floor running your shovel across the grain of the wood. If you are building on a dirt floor you need to frame in the gutter as well as the cow walkway and stanchion floor on top of that, to get your stanchion floor elevation.
B) Leave no overhang at the gutter edge of the cow floor as the cows will eventually split and ruin it with their sharp hooves. Keep it flush.
C) Use 2” x 6” or 2” x 8” for the cow floor and the cleats or stringer underneath.
D) Remember that stacked 2×4’s are stronger structurally than toe-nailed 4×4’s. So build your vertical posts in place, one stick at a time. Do the same with the top horizontal member. Spike the first 2×4″ down into the vertical posts, then the second one.
E) Keep the stanchion floor understructure separate from the manger structure so that 20 or 30 years from now when you have to replace a rotten deck stringer you don’t have to tear up the manger.
F) Keep your deck planks 4” shy of the front edge of the front stringer for the same reason – so that you can replace a rotten or broken floor plank without interfering with the structure of the vertical stanchion framework.
G) Shim under your stringers to get your slight floor pitch.
H) Cut 2×4’s to fit tightly between the posts. This member takes a real beating anchoring the bottom of the stanchion and will need to be replaced periodically.
Old stanchions come in many different types: wood, metal, and wood and metal. I love the old wooden ones with a spring and if you are lucky enough to find old wooden stanchions just make sure they lock securely and that the wood is in good shape, especially the short cross member at the bottom where the short chain attaches to the floor. You must have sturdy and functional stanchions. Do not cobble something together. I promise you you’ll have regrets. The old wooden ones have a recess bored out of them with a hole drilled through the wood crossways over the hole so you can wiggle the chain in there and bolt it securely in place. Many old stanchions I’ve seen leave that bolt hole torn out.
The wooden checked metal stanchions are probably the most plentiful, and are really nice. There’s wood rubbing against the cow’s neck, not steel, they lock shut very securely and are easy to open and shut. They are also adjustable in their width, both top and bottom. They come with a sturdy mounting bracket on the top which bolts conveniently to the cross beam. I think you can still obtain the bracket for attaching the bottom chain to the floor cross beam – it’s just a somewhat sturdy steel holder which is lag screwed to the floor. Use the heaviest and longest lag bolts you can. Slip the chain through the holder and bolt it down. You neither want it to break free nor do you want your cow to swallow a lag screw.
The manger needs to be wide enough to hold feed, and wide enough for the cow’s head to move forward when she is getting up: at least 2’ deep at the bottom, and if it’s slant-sided, then 3’ at the top — sturdy construction. No protruding nails or other rough bits. Keep the manger clean, and free from wet material which would go moldy. This is very important for your cow’s health.