Cow Stall Comfort
A Free-Stall Base Comparison
Consumers are demanding that the milk they drink is from comfortable and well-cared for cows. Dairy Farmers of Canada (DFC) has launched the proAction initiative in response to concerned consumers. This initiative presents farmers with a means to evaluate their operations and retain control and accountability of their herds’ well-being.
ProAction focuses on six crucial on-farm areas: milk quality, food safety, animal care, livestock traceability, biosecurity and environment. Several of these areas have already been integrated through DFC’s Canadian Quality Milk program. It is estimated that the animal care component will be effective across Canadian dairy farms by 2019 and will involve regular on-farm evaluations by a veterinarian or classifier.
Cow cleanliness, body condition, knee, hock and neck injuries are areas of concern for the proAction animal care segment—as it is for most dairy farmers. Comfortable cows are productive cows so in most instances it’s business as usual; but if a farm is struggling with any one of the issues mentioned, they will be obligated to make changes on their farm.
Considering that cows spend at least half their day lying down, the base of your cow stalls could be the culprit behind any of the issues mentioned above. Fortunately, there are numerous solutions available to help your cows rest easy and diminish knee and hock injuries while also assisting cow cleanliness. Designs range from solid rubber mats to mattresses filled with rubber crumbs or foam and even waterbeds.
Rubber mats are considered the second hardest stall base after concrete. Although cost-effective, this design provides minimal cushioning, considering that cows freefall the last 10-12 inches when lying down. Bedding stalls with straw, sawdust or sand can add a couple of inches of padding while still providing farmers with a level, non-porous stall base which reduces daily stall maintenance.
Numerous stall bases have padding within, creating a cow mattress. Rubber-crumb filling is one option, much like a beanbag chair. Foam-filled mattresses are also available with different densities. Softer, memory foam designs can be paired with a rubber or rubber-crumb mattress for extra cushion. Alternatively a high-density foam pad takes the cow’s shape when she’s lying down but returns to its original form when she stands. These foam pads are usually encased and protected by a plastic covering with a non-porous rubber top.
Rubber-crumb and foam mattresses provide shock absorbency. One mattress company even claims that their rubber-crumb mat recreates the characteristics of a pasture which can increase lying time to 15 hours a day.
The rubber surfaces of these mattresses still provide the cow with firm footing. Less top bedding is required—but still a necessity since cows can suffer from hock abrasions when lying repeatedly on a bare mattress. The rubber-crumb option can also compact over time and lose its cushioning quality.
Mattresses filled with water have been used on European dairy farms for over 15 years. The newest design on the North American market is an improvement on this idea with two water-filled chambers. This innovation means the water is not as easily displaced when the cow lies down.
The water in these mattresses will not compact over time and claims to be conductive: keeping cows cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. The convex shape of the waterbed also helps to shed moisture, keeping the mattress cleaner for the cows—and less work for the farmer.
A study printed in the Journal of Dairy Science and executed by W.K. Fulwider, T. Grandin, D.J. Garrick, W.D. Lamm, N.L. Dalsted and B.E. Rollin found that cows using waterbeds had fewer hock lesions than with rubber-filled mattresses or deep-bedded sand stalls. Foam and rubber mats were not considered in this study. They also found that herd culling was the lowest with waterbeds and the highest on rubber and foam mattresses. It was also noted that water-chamber mattresses have a longer adjustment period because of their initial instability, but over time cows become comfortable with the surface movement.
It is important to keep in perspective the adjustment period when looking at comparisons between different stall bases. Short studies do not take into account that cows take longer to adapt to waterbeds and therefore the outcome can appear unfavourable.
When determining which free-stall base to install in your barn, it has to make business and cow sense for your operation. Consider the monetary and time cost of each design, life expectancy and whether you’ll need more or less top bedding. Whichever base you choose, any improvement to an area where your cows spend twelve hours a day can only be a good investment—even if they’re sleeping too deeply to thank you.