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Clean, dry bedding options: Pros and cons

Wendy Fulwider Published on 09 October 2012

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Providing clean, dry bedding for dairy cows is imperative to maintaining a healthy herd and providing for the overall welfare of the animal.

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Dry bedding prevents bacterial growth, growth that contributes to high somatic cell count (SCC) and mastitis, a leading herd health problem.

A wide variety of bedding surfaces are found in freestall and tiestall barns – and proper management of each system plays a key role in cow comfort and herd health.

I have the opportunity to observe many different systems in my role as animal care specialist at Organic Valley and offer my opinions on the most common bedding types in dairy barns: sand, flat rubber mats, rubber-filled mats, compost pack and waterbeds.

While each bedding surface can provide excellent cow comfort, each has drawbacks in terms of the labor, cost and time required in maintaining a top-performing bedding system.

Sand
Sand beds are great at minimizing bacterial growth and provide maximum cow comfort most of the time, but are not preferred by cows during cold northern winters.

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Actual use of sand beds by cows is dependent on the producer keeping the beds appropriately and continually filled. As sand is kicked out and beds become less comfortable, cows spend less time lying down.

This problem of decreased lying times on sand bedding goes back to the proper and consistent management of the bedding system. Producers using sand usually spend many hours in labor and a significant amount of money in materials, equipment and equipment repairs to maintain a top-performing sand facility.

Flat rubber mats and rubber-filled mats
Flat rubber mats and rubber-filled mats provide less cushion and comfort than sand, compost pack or waterbeds. However, flat rubber mats are preferred over concrete, sand and waterbeds when cows wish to stand, making rubber mats for use as a flooring option a positive contributor to cow comfort.

Rubber-filled mats provide more comfort than flat rubber mats or concrete; however, they lose their cushioning ability over time as they pack and form depressions where the cow lays.

When using rubber mats or rubber-filled mats as stall beds, comfort and dryness can be provided if large quantities of straw, paper, sawdust or other bedding is provided.

The use of large amounts of other bedding on top of flat and rubber-filled mats contributes to labor and material costs for the producer to properly maintain the bedding system and keep cows comfortable. Like sand users, producers using flat and rubber-filled mats usually spend many hours in labor and a significant amount of money in materials to maintain a top-performing facility.

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Compost pack
Compost pack barns or bedding packs provide maximum comfort while providing a safe environment for cows. Larger farms sometimes provide areas with compost pack for cows at calving time and for cows recovering from injuries.

Drawbacks include the dependence (consistent supply and cost) on large quantities of sawdust, which is necessary to keep the environment dry. Other bedding materials do not work well in compost pack barns.

Like rubber mat barns, compost packs require tremendous amounts of labor in the bedding process as well as large quantities of sawdust to ensure a dry environment.

Waterbeds
Waterbeds can also provide maximum cow comfort and performance. Unlike sand, rubber mats and compost, waterbeds provide consistent support for the animal without the producer needing to top-fill additional bedding or use expensive equipment.

The bed also moves with the cow’s skin, protecting her from abrasions. Both of these factors help minimize bacterial buildup that might introduce mastitis-causing bacteria. While an added labor cost, many producers may also dust beds with a handful of sawdust or powdered lime once or twice per day.

One drawback to transitioning to waterbeds is the few weeks of hands-on work to help the herd adapt. Dairy cows are creatures of habit and will go to what they know. When waterbeds are installed in less than the full pen, some herds are not as quick to accept the beds.

Producers must take a few extra steps, such as top bedding the stalls for a short period, to encourage the cows to use the new surface. After four to six weeks, the cows will fully adapt.

Another drawback for farmers transitioning to waterbeds is the perception that waterbeds do not perform as well as other bedding surfaces. Because of the lack of extensive scientific research by universities, waterbeds are at a significant disadvantage when producers are considering their choices for bedding options.

However, waterbeds have been used successfully in barns for 13 years and the research that has been conducted indicates that they are a high-performing bedding surface.

For example, in a 2007 study I co-authored that was published in the Journal of Dairy Science , our team determined that waterbeds perform much better than rubber-filled mats in terms of hock lesions and hygiene – and, in fact, compare favorably in terms of hock lesions with sand.

This study was conducted while I worked with Dr. Temple Grandin, a renowned animal welfare expert, on a study of waterbeds, comparing them to sand and mats.

“Waterbeds proved to be a good alternative stall bed to sand in our [2007] study,” Grandin wrote. “Producers in areas where clean, fine sand is unavailable and those who have concerns over handling sand-laden manure or its abrasiveness on equipment may feel comfortable providing waterbeds for cows.”

Making a choice
Each producer must decide which bedding surface works best for his or her dairy operation. All four bedding types can provide maximum cow comfort when managed appropriately.

As labor, equipment and materials costs continue to rise, I believe choosing a top-performing and low-maintenance bedding solution may be the best solution for cow comfort and health as well as overall farm management and financial impact. PD

References omitted due to space but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

Wendy Fulwider
Animal Care Specialist
Organic Valley

PHOTO
A wide variety of bedding surfaces are found in freestall and tiestall barns – and proper management of each system plays a key role in cow comfort and herd health. Photo by PD staff.

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