Slope vs. steps: The ins and outs of step design

A big problem on many dairy farms in Ireland is slopes. Slopes are commonly seen on farms either entering or exiting a collecting yard, on farm roadways or entering/exiting an underpass.

Studies have shown that cows prefer to walk on a flat surface rather than walking on a slope.

According to Neil Chesterson – one of New Zealand’s leading lameness experts – cows will tolerate going up a slope of 20%. However, anything greater than 10% at entrances or exits creates problems.

Problems include:
  • Poor cow flow;
  • Slipping – especially when the slope is damp and covered in cow dung;
  • Injury to feet and legs;
  • Other injuries including dislocated hips.

Step design

Neil Chesterson developed specific recommendations for the design of cow steps. Cows prefer shallow steps as opposed to deep steps.

According to Neil, the ideal rise should be between 100mm (4in) and 150mm (6in). If the steps are only being used for cows going up, then 150mm (6in) is sufficient.

When it comes to the length of the steps, a 1,600mm length would allow the cow to have all four feet on the step before moving to the next one. However, this length is only possible where there is adequate space.

If space is an issue, cows prefer to walk on shorter steps with a lower rise. A 800mm length works very well, Neil said.

To work out how many steps you will need, measure the total rise and divide by 100mm. Divide the distance by the number of steps to get the length of each.

Neil also emphasised the importance of having the steps flat or level. He also stressed that slopes on steps should be avoided as the cow will slip or feel unsafe.