Which is more comfy: sand, mattresses or waterbeds?

An interesting question came in the other day. “What does Extension think about sand-based freestalls versus waterbeds?”
It is fair to say that Extension fully supports sand as the platinum freestall base for a couple of reasons.
On the upside. Research shows time and again that sand, being an inorganic compound (so it doesn’t support bacterial growth,) is the optimum bedding material. Fewer bacteria, fewer challenges to the udder of the environmental mastitis type.
A well-maintained sand base will allow liquids (leaking milk, cow urine or cow slobber – that would be a Jersey laying in a stall backwards) to drain away, minimizing pathogen growth in the bedding.
Keeping the stalls well-bedded and maintained is a critical management practice with any stall base.
Sand also conforms to the cow’s body, and “gives” when she is trying to raise or lower herself in the stall.
Handling issues. So much for the virtues. Sand is a bugger to handle.
While it is nice to have a big pile of sand to sprinkle around when it is icy, the rest of the time it is heavy, abrasive on equipment and settles out of manure slurry.
So, back to the original question.
Wisconsin study. What extension “thinks” is based on current research. A quick e-mail to coworkers identified a 2001 study done in Wisconsin.
Sand, waterbeds, Pasture Mat mattresses (a cover, a foam or felt pad and a multi-celled rubber crumb filled mattress), Comfy Cow mattresses (cover and recycled foam and vinyl), rubber mats, and concrete were compared over a nine-month period.
The waterbed, concrete and mattress-based stalls were bedded twice a week with sawdust. The rubber mat manufacturer did not want any bedding used on their mats.
Interestingly, the cows at this University of Wisconsin farm had not previously been in freestalls. A new barn had been constructed, so this was their first exposure to any kind of freestall bases. The number of cows was equal to the number of available stalls.
A camera was used to record stall usage 24-7. Then some lucky grad student got to watch the tapes during the selected observation periods and count how many cows were laying or standing in which stalls (called “paying your dues”).
And the winner… Bottom line, sand and the Pasture Mat mattresses topped the laying and occupancy ratings.
Sixty-nine percent of the sand stalls had cows lying in the stalls over the nine-month observation period. Sand was followed by the Pasture Mats (65 percent), Comfy Cow mats (57 percent), waterbeds (45 percent), rubber mats (33 percent) and concrete (23 percent).
The researchers also measured how many stalls were “occupied”. Cows could either be laying or standing in the stalls. In this category, both mattress systems topped the list.
Pasture Mat stalls were occupied 88 percent of the time, Comfy Cow mats (84 percent), sand (79 percent), soft rubber mat (65 percent), waterbed (62 percent) and concrete (39 percent).
So, what do we think? Based on this and other studies cited in the article, sand and mattresses had consistently higher laying and occupancy levels than the other freestall bases. If you want to make stalls most attractive to cows, these are the styles to consider.
Other barns. So, what if you don’t currently have these types of stalls? Properly sized, well maintained and really well-bedded stalls of any material go a long way toward promoting cow comfort and stall usage.
Poorly designed and maintained sand or mattress-based stalls will be poorly used. It is up to you.
(The author is the northeast Ohio district dairy specialist with OSU Extension. Send comments or questions in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460.)

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