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Getting the most out of your bedding

Victoria Diegnan for Progressive Dairyman Published on 04 November 2016
Rubber mats require a few inches of bedding

Climbing into a fresh, clean bed is something we all can appreciate. Our calves and cows are no different. Every farm lines stalls and pens with some type of bedding.

The goal is to assist in a comfortable, clean environment that promotes good health and milk production. We want our animals to rest in a space free from contaminants, giving them a reason to rest longer and not waste energy standing and pacing the barn.



For the purpose of this article, we are focusing on bedding for cow and heifer freestall barns. We are also going to focus on three of the most popular bedding options: sand, rubber mat and waterbed systems.


First, let’s tackle sand. A deep-bedded sand stall is a very desirable place for cows to lie. Sand will conform to the shape of the animal while providing a comfy cushion for resting. Sand also provides a secure surface for cows to get their footing for getting up and lying down.

There is an understanding that not all sand is the same, and that not all sand is suitable for bedding. So let’s assume you have proper-quality sand and discuss how to best utilize it.

A deep-bedded stall should contain at least 6 to 8 inches of sand. Cows are going to paw at uneven sand bedding, and that can cause problems. We don’t want cows messing with the bedding for too long, moving it in piles in the stall or pushing it into the alley.

It is recomended to clean and replace sand in the back of stalls at least twice each year


This is why grooming is so important. Once the bed is flattened by cows lying, it needs to be maintained. This means frequent grooming and maintenance.

The term “frequent” will have different meanings for different people, but there are a few things you can measure. If you notice manure in the ends of the beds, clean those more often. If piles are collecting in certain areas, smooth them out. It’s understood that stall utilization is higher in stalls that are groomed. Use a skid-steer grooming attachment to quickly groom large groups of stalls.

Grooming is also important in keeping stalls dry as well as level, as turning over and spreading sand out allows moisture to evaporate.

One thing that shouldn’t be overlooked when maintaining sand beds is the twice-per-year complete cleaning and replacement of at least the 18 inches of sand from the stall curb. If you are using very fine sand that packs faster, you may need to do this more often.

This sand will become the most contaminated with manure, urine and milk. It will need to be completely dug out and replaced in order to maintain a clean stall bed. Once per year, the entire bed of sand should be replaced.

Don’t forget to fill the stalls about once a week as well. There isn’t really any getting around the fact that your cows are going to need approximately 40 to 50 pounds of sand per day. Be sure sand levels are kept to the top of the curb and don’t fall below.


Rubber mats

Next, we will discuss rubber mat systems. To begin the discussion on how to best care for a rubber mat system, we need to first choose one that will be right for the operation. Different systems will require different amounts of maintenance. Understand the differences between what’s available so you can choose one that will fit the management style and practices on your farm.

To do this evaluation, you need to come to terms with the fact that all mats will degrade over time. This degradation cannot be measured only by how many tears or holes there are, either.

When it comes to mats, it’s going to be all about comfort, which for mats means getting harder. Rubber mats will compress and lose their softness over time, and different mats will do this at different rates.

Mats made of recycled rubber compounds will not be as comfortable or stable for as long as a mat made of virgin rubber. So you need to decide what features are most important to your operation. If longevity is what you’re after, then you will be sacrificing comfort more quickly down the road.

If you are comfort-focused, you’ll need to accept the fact that, to get the most out of your system, you may have to change it out in five to 10 years. There is no rubber mat product that is going to last 20 years and still be comfortable for your cows.

Rubber mats still need to be bedded (with sand or another soft bedding) and groomed and re-bedded weekly. A mat system only requires a couple inches of bedding and will offer a more uniform surface for cows to lay on.

With less bedding, cleaning will be easier and maintenance time will decrease. Most systems are textured to provide footing for cows and a path for drainage – and won’t catch on cleaning equipment.

To assess the comfort level of your current mat system, go and stand on it. If you’re feeling confident, drop to your knees from a bent position. This will let you know how soft and dry the surface is.

There should be some give, and it shouldn’t hurt when you hit the surface. You should also notice the dryness of the bed to be sure the material isn’t retaining moisture.


The lifespan of a waterbed is similar to that of a rubber mat, as they are made out of rubber. They will have the same lifespan as well, relative to quality, ranging anywhere from five years on the low end to the upwards of 15 years.

Though top bedding is not necessary for protecting hocks, it is helpful in keeping beds clean and dry. Preferred top bedding materials include sawdust, shavings, straw, gypsum, lime and paper byproducts.

Depending on season and humidity, anywhere from a handful to 3 gallons of bedding is recommended. This can be done by hand with a bucket or feed scoop in smaller barns, while larger facilities with more stalls may take advantage of mechanical means, such as a side shooter. As for daily cleaning, use a plastic shovel to scrape any manure from the bed’s surface.

For waterbeds, top bedding is recommended to keep surgaces clean and dry

Doing this two to four times each day as needed, coupled with regular alley cleaning, will keep stalls clean and optimize hygiene and udder health.

A clean, dry, comfortable resting place for your cow is a priority and will pay off with healthy cows that produce lots of high-quality milk. If a cow’s rest is disrupted, eating and drinking habits will be affected as well.

It is a core part of taking care of your animals, and when implementing a system that complements the management of your farm, it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. It’s when bedding is neglected that problems arise, costs go up while profits go down.

Last, when considering a new build or a barn redesign, decide what type of bedding will be used before the project gets underway. The design of a facility needs to be set up in a way to handle and maintain a bedding system.

Equipment may also vary relative to bedding choice, and you will want to have that figured out before making these decisions.  end mark

PHOTO 1: Rubber mats require a few inches of bedding on the surface, with regular grooming and weekly re-bedding.

PHOTO 2: It is recommended to clean and replace sand in the back of stalls at least twice each year. Photos by Victoria Diegnan.

PHOTO 3: For waterbeds, top bedding is recommended to keep surfaces clean and dry. Photo by Amy Throndsen.

Victoria Diegnan is with Seneca Dairy Systems LLC. Email Victoria Diegnan