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    Creating A Good Home For Cows

    A brown and white cow walks between a tree and a wooden fence outdoors.
    Tuulispää Animal Sanctuary in Finland. Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / The Unbound Project

    Updated May 11, 2020

    Like many animals, cows are happiest with ample safe outdoor space to roam and graze on, as well as an indoor shelter to keep them out of the elements when necessary, though what their living space ends up exactly looking like could vary quite a bit depending on your resources and geography!

    If you are bringing new cows into your life, you also need to ensure that you have an appropriate quarantine space to keep you and your existing residents safe!

    How Much Space Do Cow Residents Need?

    When creating living spaces, it is important to ensure that your residents have enough space. There are many factors to consider when determining how much space cows need; there is no magic number we have to offer.  Not all residents are going to do well with the general recommendations offered online, or even those offered by established sanctuaries, so you’ll need to be prepared to expand their living space if that’s what they need.  

    Farm Sanctuary, Catskill Animal Sanctuary, and the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries offer recommendations, but keep in mind that these are minimums, so you should strive to provide more space to your residents.

    Farm Sanctuary– Their 2018 Farm Animal Care Conference resources do not offer specific recommendations about the amount of indoor space to provide, but their previous Cattle Care resource recommended “at least 35 to 40 square feet for each animal.”  In terms of pasture space, the 2018 FACC resources state, “A rule of thumb is if you have good healthy pasture land you should not have more than 2 cows per acre. With weaker pasture you should of course have less…. Cattle need 4% of their body weight a day in forage. Therefore, with the giant Holsteins you need more usable pasture and you would need far less with the smaller breeds.”

    Catskill Animal Sanctuary– Their Cow Fact Sheet recommends indoor shelters that provide “at least 80 square feet for each animal.” For outdoor space, “Catskill Animal Sanctuary recommends a minimum of 1 acre of pasture per cow (2 acres is strongly preferred).”

    Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries– In their Standards For Ruminant Sanctuaries, it states, “Room dimension is dependent on intended purpose and/or duration of confinement, ensuring that ruminants can be housed with at least one other member of their species. Enclosures are large enough to allow all animals to comfortably move around and to lie down…. In cattle enclosures ceilings are high enough to accommodate equipment or move downed cows.”  For outdoor space it recommends a “minimum area of 350 sq. ft. (32.5 sq. m) per cow.”

    Use these as a starting point, but be aware that there are many factors to consider when determining the amount of space needed to keep your residents comfortable and happy. Age, breed, sex, health issues, activity level, herd dynamics, climate, and type of outdoor space should be considered when creating a space or determining a space’s capacity.

    Indoor Living Spaces For Cows

    People have employed many different materials and structures for housing cows, but the best scenario is a fully enclosed pole barn with adequate ventilation. Not only are pole barns less affected by bad weather, water, and drafts, but they are also easier to get into and clean, which is very important for the health of any animal. The exception to this rule is for sanctuaries in warmer environments, where you can house cows in a three-sided structure that faces away from the prevailing winds if absolutely necessary. Dirt-covered flooring is critical for cow living spaces since slips and falls could lead to torn ligaments and joint damage and constantly standing or laying down on hard surfaces can also cause serious issues. Concrete flooring should be avoided whenever possible. If the indoor living space floor is concrete, you should layer at least a half a foot of dirt onto the concrete floor and replenish as needed. Concrete or hardwood flooring alone is unacceptable for a cow’s indoor living space.

    Loft Concerns
    Larger animals such as cows should not live in areas below lofts if at all possible. If they were to require medical attention or need to be manually removed from the space, the loft will prevent equipment from being able to safely navigate the space! Similarly, a low ceiling or roof will also prevent equipment from being able to lift or otherwise assist a cow who is unable to stand.  Make sure the indoor living space provides enough vertical space for equipment, such as a bucket tractor, to fully lift the bucket attachment if needed.

    an outline of a cow graphic in yellow

    Ideally, you should provide a lot of dry and clean straw in a cow’s indoor living space. Cows like to use straw as bedding, and it’s important to give them extra bedding material in much colder weather. You must remove and replace all wet and soiled straw to prevent serious health risks to cows. In cold climates, where cow poop freezes solid, you must be diligent about removing poop from their indoor space as well as main walkways outdoors. These frozen piles of poop become a trip hazard and can also be painful for cows to walk on. There are products you can spread on wet areas such as hydrated lime alternatives like Sweet PDZ or Stall Dry to keep the living space free of moisture. If you cannot provide straw, you can use other clean and replaceable materials such as wood shavings, but straw is best for cows! If it’s your only option, you can provide a thick layer of (naturally-sourced only) sand, but it’s important to keep this material clean and dry as much as you can. Exhaust fans with locking shutters are very effective at keeping barns well-ventilated and dry.

    Summer Considerations

    A cow’s indoor living space needs to be waterproof and free of drafts, in both warm and cold conditions. Excessive heat (especially combined with high humidity) can lead to exhaustion and dehydration in cows. Therefore, you need to make sure that they can stay cool indoors in the summer with ample access to clean water. If it gets too hot for them to be comfortable, you can use water misting fans, but you have to make absolutely sure you aren’t getting their living space too moist. Even basic circulating fans can be kept on automatic thermometers to keep residents comfortable, but you must ensure that all cables are safely secured!

    Cows need some sort of fly mitigation in the summertime to avoid irritation and the spread of many diseases. One effective way to prevent flies on cows is a hanging cattle oiler or rub which can be loaded up with fly-discouraging solutions and mineral oil to stay applied on the cow’s neck and back as they walk into and out of their indoor living space.

    Winter Considerations

    In the winter, you have to make sure that the barn is ventilated because humidity can quickly build up in a warm barn and cause dangerous pneumonia and bronchitis outbreaks in a herd. If your barn is properly insulated from drafts, a cow’s body (especially a herd of cows in an appropriately-sized area) will provide a good deal of warmth (and their winter coats will keep them even warmer!). A barn full of cows can quickly become dangerously humid, so it is imperative to keep the barn well ventilated which often means leaving at least some doors open.  There have been instances of entire herds developing pneumonia as a result of their barn being closed up too tightly by well-intentioned humans trying to ensure they remained warm.

    Condensation Concerns
    If you feel condensation on the walls or ceiling of a barn in the wintertime, it must be immediately ventilated as it is far too moist for safe cow habitation!

    An oversized indoor living space is not ideal in the winter as they will have a harder time keeping warm in it. If absolutely necessary (such as housing a very young, very old, or infirm cow), you can use ceramic bulb heat lamps, but you must make sure to keep electrical cords out of reach from curious residents and make triple sure to keep heating elements clean and dust free! Barn fires are tragically common occurrences. Ceramic heating panels are a safer option, or if you have ample funding, radiant floor heating covered in dirt is the most ideal and safe heating solution for animals in barns.  If you look into installing radiant floor heating, be aware that this system could cause an environment that is too humid depending on the type of enclosure you have and how many cows live in the space.  Typically, wood structures will “breathe” better than concrete block or metal-sided buildings, which are more likely to sweat and contribute to high humidity levels.  Additional ventilation may be necessary when using radiant floor heating.

    Determine if and at what temperature the indoor water supply may freeze in the winter. Be prepared to empty waterers at night and provide fresh warm water for overnight access.  Automated waterers with heaters on thermostats can be very helpful for keeping residents safely hydrated all season long.

    Ensure that there is no risk of snow or ice falling off of structures and striking residents.

    Outdoor Living Spaces For Cows

    Cows need a safely enclosed outdoor space to spend time in throughout the day and graze if they so choose. The outdoor living space must be fenced in with materials that can’t be easily knocked over by a cow. There are a variety of different fence materials suitable for cows, including wood, woven wire, high tensile, or a combination. We do not recommend using barbed wire as it can injure residents. A cow’s fence should be stretched tightly, at least four feet high, and secured to posts every ten feet or so. Corral boards on the outside of the fence can help keep it secure. It’s not recommended to use any kind of fencing that has slats in it where a curious cow might get their head caught!

    It’s very important that you know what kind of pasture cows are grazing on. Certain plants are toxic to cows, and you need to ensure that any dangerous plants are removed from the pasture before a cow is allowed to roam there. A local governmental agricultural department should be able to tell you what regional plants you need to protect cows from. You also should not let a healthy adult cow, especially a male, graze primarily on an alfalfa pasture; alfalfa is very high in protein and calcium, an excessive amount for most cows. Take your time introducing a new cow to your pasture as they need to acclimate to the new food source over a period of a few weeks. Otherwise, the cow is at risk of developing bloat.

    A cow’s outdoor space should be set up so that they have access to cow-safe pasture to graze on during pasture season, but during times when ice or deep mud are an issue the space can be arranged so that they continue to have outdoor space without having access to unsafe areas.  The amount of pasture required for cows depends on many factors including the quality of pasture and whether or not you intend for your cow residents to rely solely on pasture for their diet during portions of the year. Pasture quality is affected by weather, which is unpredictable, so you should always be prepared in case you need to supplement with hay due to weather-related pasture issues, such as severe drought. If a cow’s pasture is consistently muddy, make sure to provide ample space for the cows to keep their feet dry. Chronically dirty feet can lead to hoof rot. You should also have a shady area in their outdoor enclosure that they can access on the hotter days of the year. Cows enjoy spending time in the shade during the hottest part of the day, so if it’s possible it’s good to offer both pasture space and wooded areas. Clean water should be easily accessible wherever cows prefer to spend their time!

    Ice Is Not Nice
    Cows cannot be allowed to walk on icy or slippery paths under any circumstances. If they slip, they could be severely injured. Whenever it snows or the ground freezes, you must create safe, ice-free paths for cows to walk on, and you must use something other than salt as a de-icer as it could potentially damage cow feet. There are animal-safe products that can be used instead of salt. For additional important sanctuary-wide considerations in winter, check out our resource here!

    If you are caring for many cows, you should have multiple pastures for them, so you can let unused portions of your pasture regenerate while one is in use.

    What Does ‘Unacceptable’ Mean?
    At The Open Sanctuary Project, unacceptable means that we cannot condone (or condone through omission) a certain practice, standard, or policy. See a more detailed explanation here.


    Cattle Care | Farm Sanctuary*

    Cow Fact Sheet | Catskill Animal Sanctuary

    Standards For Ruminant Sanctuaries | Global Federation Of Animal Sanctuaries

    Poisonous Plants In Pastures | University Of New Hampshire

    How Hot Is Too Hot? | Drovers (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Do Livestock Need Cold Weather Sheltering During Winter? | The Frederick News Post (Non-Compassionate Source)

    5 Tips To Keep Your Cattle Safe In The Summer Heat | Texas A&M (Non-Compassionate Source)

    *As of the publishing of this resource, the online care guide does not reflect the updated information provided to 2018 FACC attendees.

    Non-Compassionate Source?
    If a source includes the (Non-Compassionate Source) tag, it means that we do not endorse that particular source’s views about animals, even if some of their insights are valuable from a care perspective. See a more detailed explanation here.

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