FREEWALK - Develop economic sound free walk farming systems elevating animal welfare, health and manure quality, while being appreciated by society

Aim of the project

To research and further develop economic sound free walk cattle farming systems, which improve animal welfare, longevity, manure quality and soil structure, utilize waste products and have public support.


The majority of cows live in barns whose design has barely been updated over the last fifty years, the cubicle stable. Dairy barns of the future will likely focus on natural cow behaviour, climate control, reducing emissions, re-using waste streams, manure quality and capital efficiency. The mentioned factors, including cow behaviour, re-using waste streams and reducing emissions are mutually dependent. That is why it is essential to balance the different issues.

What: The approach will deliver an integrated assessment of case farms spread over Europe, using experimental and modelling methods to evaluate system performance. Societal appreciation of the Free Walk farming system and products is assessed at regional level. A systems analysis and economical evaluation will be performed at farm, national and European level.

Why: The development of cubicle housing increased labour efficiency of cattle farming, but it is a major factor influencing animal welfare. Also, productivity of grasslands and crop management systems has increased over the years, however soil structure, soil life and biodiversity of grasslands are becoming poorer. Moreover, a good integration of housing and farming facilities in the landscape positively contributes to societal acceptance.

Where: The research is been done in 10 academic centres located in Austria, Germany, Israel,  Italy, The Netherlands, Norway, Slovenia, Sweden and USA.

Main project activities

As innovative house systems, the compost bedded pack barn and the cow garden are applied with a completely free walking and lying area and are compared with cubicle barns for reference. Housing as part of intensive and extensive farming will be examined in a holistic context, encompassing the whole farm: bedding, artificial floor, animal welfare, health, longevity, manure quality, soil structure, NPC-balances and product quality. Greater insights in composting process plays a crucial role in the success of the system.

Interim research findings

The research is based on:

22 Freewalk Case farms & 22 Cubicle Reference farms in 6 European countries (SE, NL, DE, AT, IT, SI)

2 farms with artificial floor / High Welfare Floor (NL)

Research units for detailed research (Dairy Campus (NL) & Research farm Logatec (SI)

Measurements during 6 farm visits on climate of bedding and barn, farm outlay, dry matter of bedding, cow welfare and milk (meat) quality. The NPC cycle on a limited number of farms is also worked out.

Preliminary results

  • Temperature of the composting bedding material varies a lot from farm to farm.

A temperature from 30 to 40 degrees is considered optimal. Especially (too) low temperatures in compost bedding material were found in the winter months.

  • Dry matter content is a key parameter for a successful composting process. A water balance model is set-up.
  • Cow welfare measurements were done on the 44 farms, using mainly animal-based measures, from an adaptation of the Welfare Quality® Protocol.

Farms were visited during winter 2017 and summer 2018, where 4.036 dairy cows were scored by the same observer. The results showed a large influence by the housing system on animal-based measures and comfort around resting. 

  • Antibiotics use was assessed in a sample of 24 Netherlands’ freewalk herds

Use of antibiotics on freewalk farms was significantly less than in a group of 90 cubicle housed herds. Follow-up research intends to find out if this is a purely housing effect or caused by differences in farmers’ attitude (or both). 

  • The bacteria flora measurements in the composting bedding of freewalk barns ask for more insight.
  • Cleanliness in freewalk barns is a point of attention.
  • Bedding management is complex; winter and summertime ask for a different approach.
  • A freewalk barn may require a higher investment because it is larger (more m2 per cow), and the bedding material adds additional daily costs. This is expected to be compensated by better health and longevity of the animals, while the composted bedding material is favourable for the structure of the soil. Bacteria development and cleanliness are attention points. Emissions can be held at the same level as cubicle barns.


Project consortium

Coordinated by: Dr. Marija Klopčič - University of Ljubljana (SLOVENIA)

  • AUSTRIA: HBLFA Raumberg-Gumpenstein
  • GERMANY: Technical University of Munich and University of Giessen
  • ISRAEL: Agricultural Research Organization
  • ITALY: Università degli Studi di Firenze
  • THE NETHERLANDS: Wageningen UR
  • NORWAY: Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research
  • SLOVAKIA: National Agricultural and Food Centre
  • SWEDEN: Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
  • USA: University of Kentucky
Slovenian farmers visiting housing research at Netherlands’ Dairy Campus Experimental Farm

Funded by: MKGP, HBLA Raumberg-Gumpenstein, BMEL, Agricultural Research Organisation, MIPAAF, NWO, RCN, MPRV-SR, FORMAS and University of Kentucky as part of the ERA-NET Cofund SusAn through a virtual common pot model including EU Top-Up funding from the European Union´s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement no 696231).

More information

Presentations and posters

Research articles