The scientists who compared performance and health within the two stall types found tethered cattle have a higher reproductive performance and suffer less teat injuries and metabolic diseases.
The research was in response to a government ban on the construction of new tie-stalls.
Egil Simensen from the Norwegian School of Veterinary Science said he worked with a team of researchers to investigate data on 812 herds of Norwegian Red cattle, 192 of which were kept in tie-stalls.
"Free-stall cows in smaller herds produced significantly less milk than those in tie-stalls, but more milk in larger herds," Simensen said. "Cattle are social animals and readily form dominance hierarchies, especially at areas of access to feed, water and rest. It may be that cattle which are free to move around spend more time fighting and less time feeding in small free-stalls, particularly when the design of the stall is suboptimal."
Since 2004, all new cattle stalls built in Norway must be of the free-stall type.
"Performance and health is not universally better in small free-stalls than in tie-stalls," Simensen said. Herd size must be taken into consideration when preparing and evaluating regulations regarding housing system for dairy cows".
The study appears in the journal Acta Veterinaria Scandinavica.
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