Animal comfort is a key aspect of care for production and prevention of diseases. Bedding options vary greatly, and each type has its own benefits and drawbacks. On average, heifers and cows rest for 10 hours a day, so it is important to keep them comfortable for this length of time. Easy ways to tell if a bedding practice is working well are be SCC counts, teat end and hock health, and animal cleanliness.
Organic – Straw, manure, hay, saw dust, wood shavings, crop residue, shredded paper
Organic materials are typically more readily available and very cost effective. They absorb moisture really well, but need to be kept dry and frequently cleaned (in order to deter bacteria growth), which can rapidly grow in these types of mediums.
A general rule of thumb is the bigger a particle used for bedding, the better. Small particles can stick to udder skin and get into teats. For example, wood shavings would be easier to wipe or fall off the udder vs. sawdust, which can stick to the skin and is even small enough to get into the teat orifice.
Inorganic – Sand and crushed limestone
Inorganic materials generally support lower bacterial populations over organic materials. However, the cost of purchasing these types of bedding over having them readily available from your operation is a drawback.
Sand is considered the most comfortable for cows. However, it can be heavy to handle, very hard on equipment, and will freeze when wet in the wintertime. Lime products work well, but tend to dry out skin on teats and hooves.
Alternatives to Reduce the Amount of Needed Bedding – Mattresses or mats (rubber, foam, water, gel)
These options provide a slight cushion on the bottom of the stall, but they do NOT replace bedding. It will lessen the amount of bedding needed in the stall overall. There will still need to be an adequate layer of bedding on top of the cushioning.
Bedding retainers are great when wanting to keep bedding levels deep. The retainer should be at the rear of the stall and give the cow the same amount of room as if it wasn’t there. Bedding should remain deep enough to be even with the retainer. Sometimes the materials can bunch up at the end due to movement and lessen the layer of bedding and cow comfort.
Whatever bedding option is chosen, the bedding should be deep enough to provide comfort, and cleaned and turned frequently to prevent bacterial growth. Contamination is also a potential issue with bedding. How is it transported? Where is it stored? Is it exposed to elements like rain or runoff? These factors can potentially contaminate the bedding before it even reaches the animal. Regardless of what you choose, it is important to change out and clean the materials frequently.
“Bedding for Dairy Cows: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly.” Penn State Extension
“Bedding Materials and Udder Health.” Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine