If you want your dairy queens to reign at the top, you have to start with what is underneath!

Remember the story of the Princess and the Pea?

She could feel a pea through several mattresses.  In our dairy barns, we have productive queens and royal princesses who have that same sensitivity … in their bovine feet.  Everything they walk on, sleep on or stand on affects their comfort, health and how long their dairy reign will last.Cows on pasture can choose where to lie down, or more importantly, change to a more comfortable spot, as far as what they walk and lie down on.  However, nothing is perfect, and mud, stones, wind, rain and excessive heat and cold can add discomfort to the presumed better outdoor conditions.  Looking inside the barn, logic tells us that sand would be the softest, mouldable bedding … but, that would have to be sand that isn’t clogging machinery or providing other problems for the human side of the dairy operating equation.

There are Always Trade-Offs When Choosing Bedding

Efficiency and effectiveness also add to the variables you have to consider when choosing bedding.  It might be hugely efficient to have automatic scrapers, slatted floors or automatic spray cleaners but, if these are making cows nervous and causing slips, falls and lameness the efficiency and savings in work hours may be completely eradicated by less production, more illness added vet costs and increased culling. Ultimately cattle welfare is complicated.

Whether your cows are princesses or queens, your choice of bedding will be influenced by whether it is tie stall, free stall, or open style. Cost and labor efficiency are high priorities to factor in as well.  

Well-packed beds, like the excellent ones maintained at cattle shows are definitely cow-comfortable. They require constant maintenance to stay manure free.  On the one hand, the added tasks mean that you are very aware of the manure from each cow and the regular observation allows problems or changes in status to be noted and dealt with in a timely and efficient manner. On the other hand, you incur the added labor costs and expense to replace or maintain the pack.  Furthermore, the best bedding material for combating lameness may not be best for udder cleanliness. Relative concerns regarding such different problem areas will also influence bedding material recommendations.

 “Our mission is to improve the lives of animals through research education and outreach.”

That is the mission statement of The Animal Welfare group at the University of British Columbia goes like this.   (Link: http://awp.landfood.ubc.ca/) They studied barn design and management, and their results showed three areas that have the biggest impact on animal welfare:

  1. Providing deep bedding
  2. Professional management with Standard Operation Procedures
  3. The use of technology to detect illness

Deep Bedding Makes the Most Difference in Lameness

The team at the Animal Welfare group at UBC concluded that bedding is the single most important feature that can reduce lameness on dairy farms (From the Hoard’s Dairyman webinar with Dan Weary, the University of British Columbia.) The researchers studied cow comfort and barn design, and the differences in how people build and manage their farms in Canada, the US and China and found that the lying surface provided to the cows made a significant difference.

  • Farms using deep bedding have 50% lower lameness rates than those who don’t.
  • The north east of the US has a higher lameness rates compared to California dairies that use deep bedded recycled dry manure solids.
  • The use of deep bedding reduces hock lesions, with 95% less hock lesion rate.

If you can see the floor under cow, you will have problems with lameness and hock lesions.

Sometimes Big is Better for Cow Comfort

To draw a comparison to human comfort let’s look at bed and breakfasts and hotels.  Sometimes the small intimate B&B has the edge because of the one on one attention.  However, there are times when the bed may have seen too many guests or is restricted because of the small inn ambience.  It’s nice to get a consistent night’s sleep at a big hotel chain with a comfortable mattress. However, back to cow comfort.

Desirable Characteristics of Bedding

There are two driving factors behind good bedding choices. One is cow comfort, and the other is farmer comfort. The two sometimes pull in opposite directions. Nevertheless, cow comfort must win out whenever the decision affects the cow spending most of the day lying down processing feed into milk.

  • Bedding must be comfortable to lie on.
  • Because cows are large animals, bedding must offer uniform support.
  • Coolness in summer and warmth in winter will promote cow comfort.
  • Dry bedding is critical for comfort and reduction in pathogen growth.
  • Good footing is essential for injury prevention.
  • Nonabrasive bedding promotes both comfort and injury reduction.
  • Besides whatever physical comfort dairy workers need, there are the financial comforts that require that bedding be cost efficient and labor efficient.

Six Cow Comfort Choices

Studies are accumulating data that shows that with increasing comfort daily lying time increases and hock scores improve for lactating and non-lactating cows. Here are some options to consider as part of your environmental and animal welfare strategy.

  1. Compost, or composting material, is used as bedding in open style barns. Cows find this comfortable as observed by lying time. As well, foot and leg health has positive improvement with this system. The nature of the material requires that the facility have good air circulation.  Teat cleaning will also need scrupulous attention. Good management is required and includes the challenges of daily tilling and regular replacement of the material.
  1. Geotextile Mattresses manufactured from a variety of materials are commercially available. These may be used in either tie stall or free stall barns.  They are marketed as requiring no bedding, but research has shown (see Bernard, et al. and Tucker and Weary) that added bedding makes the mattresses much more attractive to cows. Mattresses are generally installed in rows and come in a variety of sizes to fit typical stall sizes.
  1. Paper may be available inexpensively or even free in the vicinity of paper mills or shredding companies. Chopped recycled newsprint has also been used for dairy bedding. Both can be effectively mixed with other bedding materials. Fineness of chop will influence bedding characteristics. Because the material must be kept dry, storage factors into consideration.
  1. Sand can be an excellent choice of bedding. Because sand is an inert material, it will not tend to promote growth of pathogens, though when mixed with manure, the manure will support pathogen growth. Particle size is of great importance. Too small a particle size (or too much organic matter mixed in) will hold water too well. Large particles (> 3mm) will not be comfortable to lie on. Sand that is naturally occurring has rounded edges and is more comfortable as bedding than manufactured sand that comes from crushing rock. The potentially negative side of using sand as bedding comes in the disposal. In a liquid manure handling facility, sand must be settled out and disposed of. If this could be done in such a way as to reuse the cleaned sand, however, it would become a benefit.
  1. Sawdust and Wood shavings are commonly used bedding materials for dairy cows. They have the advantage over sand of being broken down by microorganisms in the disposal system, but they have the disadvantage of allowing growth of microorganisms (pathogens). Addition of lime to bedding may reduce growth of pathogens. The smaller particle size of sawdust makes it more absorbent than wood shavings and quicker to break down. However, small particle size is also associated with rapid growth of bacteria and other harmful pathogens. Cost and availability tend to be deciding factors in choice of material.
  1. Straw composts well and reduces in volume when composted, better than sawdust or wood shavings. It is important when using straw as bedding that the particle size be small, preferably fitting through a ¾ inch screen, both to increase animal comfort and to shorten breakdown time. Bedding absorbency as well as comfort to animals varies according to the species as well as to the chop size. Straw is an attractive bedding alternative when it is produced on the farm.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

There is much to consider in removing that uncomfortable pea in your dairy facilities.  The first discomfort may be with the associated costs and the difficult logistics of implementing change. There is no doubt that cow comfort practices affect lameness and longevity.  Accept the comfort challenge and you may find that “happily ever after starts with better bedding.” 




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