Dairy stalls that are clean, dry and comfortable make for happy, heathy cows, but keeping moisture and pathogens out of the stall bedding can be a challenge for dairy producers. Regardless of your bedding material, be it organic or inorganic, the cows’ overall health and comfort is important for producing quality milk.
Optimizing your stalls
To reduce moisture, minimize bacteria and improve cow comfort, look for the following characteristics in your own stalls and bedding:
1. Surface moisture
If you take a look at the surface of your bedding, do you notice any moisture? If so, you may have a problem with bedding depth, a lack of maintenance or with the bedding itself.
Moisture is one of the three life-sustaining requirements of bacteria, along with heat and food. Taking one of these requirements away reduces bacteria’s ability to survive. The ideal moisture content for sand bedding is 10% or less, and the ideal moisture content for dried manure solids is 70% or less.
Keeping your bedding dry and well maintained allows any liquids to drain or evaporate. Dry bedding also provides traction for the cows and acts as an abrasive to clean between their toes.
2. Interior moisture
For moisture you can’t see, scrape below the surface of the bedding. If you see a wet, black line, you have a problem with high moisture and high bacteria content. To remedy the issue, the stall should be completely dug out to remove the contamination, and clean, dry bedding should be put in its place.
3. Bedding depth
Bedding depth is crucial for cow comfort. If you are bedding on reclaimed sand, you should aim to keep the sand at 4-6” deep. Ideally, the sand should cover the cow’s feet so that they essentially disappear as she walks into the stall. You’ll know your sand isn’t deep enough if the hoof prints are half an inch or less deep, indicating the sand is well-packed. Well-packed sand does not provide a comfortable base for the cows to lie down. However, sand that is too deep in the stall can hold moisture and allow bacteria to grow, which can cause health problems for the cow.
If you are bedding on dried manure solids, you should strive to keep a bed depth of 2”. Solids will dry faster if spread out thinner, but keep in mind that drying the solids too much can put the solids at risk of becoming airborne.
4. Side rail design
The design of your side rails can contribute to your cows’ overall comfort and health. For example, it is easier for the cow to get up and lie down if the side rails swing upward, which means your cows are less likely to deposit manure or urine in the stall and more likely to back up to deposit in the alleyway. To reduce the risk of injury to the cow’s bony structures, be sure your side rails are at least 18” high.
5. Remove the brisket board
A brisket board that prevents the cow from getting up naturally can cause distress. The cow’s fight-or-flight response will be triggered, and she is more likely to pass manure or urine in the stall. Removing the brisket board or bar between the cows gives them more room to get up and down, allowing them to be more comfortable and less agitated, and decreases the chance they will contaminate the stall.
Best practices to minimize moisture and pathogens
You can further reduce the moisture content and pathogens in your bedding by mechanically conditioning your sand or dried manure solids over several days, or you can use equipment designed for drying recycled sand or dried manure solids, including roll presses, screw presses, dewatering screens and bedding dryers.
Another way to reduce the moisture content and pathogens in your dried manure solids bedding is to let the material sit for a few days before using it as bedding, as bacteria reach their highest concentrations a day or two after being placed in the stalls. Wait at least a week before adding fresh solids.
Other best practices to follow include removing fresh manure deposits both inside and outside the stall as soon as possible, keeping the stalls ventilated and well drained, and protecting stored bedding from rain and snow. You should also avoid overcrowding the cows, and take extra care with maternity pens and stalls for at-risk cows.
By following best practices for your bedding, you can keep mastitis-causing pathogens at bay and reduce the health problems associated with those pathogens. Your cows will also be more comfortable and produce higher quality milk as a result.