sand versus mattress freestalls: there's truly no debate

When building a new barn, one of the biggest decisions to be made is which type of stall surface and which type of bedding material you wish to use.  There are many factors to consider when deciding whether to put in mattresses or deep-bedded sand stalls - cost of materials; cost of maintaining stalls; cost of bedding; and the cost of handling the manure and soiled bedding.  One factor that rarely gets enough consideration is the cow comfort index of the different surfaces.  There has been a great deal of field research comparing deep-bedded sand stalls to other stall surfaces and all of the studies clearly demonstrate that deep-bedded sand is superior to all other surfaces.  We, the veterinarians at RSLVS, see the difference every day.  We believe there are four major benefits of deep-bedded sand stalls that easily outweigh the extra costs associated with handling sand. 

1.     Reduced Lameness

The number one cause of non-infectious foot lesions (sole ulcers and white line disease) are cows spending too much time standing, particularly on concrete or other hard surfaces.  There are a number of different ways to reduce the length of time your cows spend standing on concrete (ie. rubber flooring in the holding area, parlour and return alleys).  However, the single most effective way is to design comfortable freestalls to maximize the length of time cows spend lying down.  The research shows that herds with sand-bedded stalls consistently have less lameness.  The prevalence of lameness in sand-bedded herds has been reported to be 10 to 20%, compared to 25 to 50% in mattress herds.  The benefits of sand stalls in relation to foot lameness are 2-fold:  #1:  Cows spend more time lying down, thereby reducing the development of foot lesions; #2: Cows that develop lameness spend much more time lying down when on sand, which allows their foot lesions to heal quicker and reduces the proportion of cows that progress to a more severe degree of lameness.  Additionally, herds with sand-bedded freestalls consistently have a much lower prevalence of cows with hock lesions.  Studies have shown as high as 85-95% fewer hock lesions in sand-bedded herds compared to mattress herds.  These findings have become increasingly more important since the implementation of the proAction Animal Welfare Program in which the prevalence and severity of lameness and hock scores is measured. 

2.     Greater Milk Production

When cows are lying down there is a 24-28% increase in blood flow to the udder.  More blood means more nutrients are delivered to the udder.  More nutrients mean more milk.  Additionally, when cows are lying down they are expending less energy performing physical tasks such as walking, standing and interacting with other cows.  They then have more energy available to ruminate and manufacture milk.  Numerous studies have shown that herds that moved from mattress stalls to sand-bedded freestalls saw an increase in milk yield of 2 to 5.5 kg/cow/day.  Research at the Miner Institute in New York found that for every extra hour cows spend lying down they are able to produce 1.7 kg more milk per day. 


3.     Improved Udder Health

Sand is an inorganic, inert substance, meaning it does not provide a good substrate for the growth of bacteria.  It also drains fluids very well.  For these reasons, sand is an excellent surface from an udder health perspective.  In contrast, mattress stalls use organic bedding materials such as straw, shavings, or dried manure solids which provide an excellent media for bacterial growth.  When stalls and/or bedding become wet and dirty with manure and/or urine, the ability of bacteria to grow and multiply increases exponentially, which dramatically increases the number of mastitis-causing bacteria in the bedding and therefore in close proximity to teat ends.  This can lead to a higher prevalence of clinical and sub-clinical mastitis, and increased Somatic Cell Counts (SCC).  A study in Wisconsin compared bulk tank SCC in sand-bedded herds; mattress herds with manure solids; and mattress herds with other organic bedding types (straw and shavings).  The results are shown in the table below.


4.     Reduced Culling and Increased Longevity    

At RSLVS we have observed a much greater proportion of cows in mattress herds with lameness due to foot lesions and injured legs and joints, as well as cows with injured backs.  In sand-bedded herds these types of injuries are quite rare because cows can more easily get up and lie down.  When a cow gets up, she gets her hind end up first.  In sand stalls the hind feet are able to dig in to the sand so that the sand surrounds the whole foot and provides more support for the foot and therefore the legs.  More support means more traction.   In contrast, in mattress stalls only the toe is able to dig in to the stall surface, so traction is very poor (bedding provides very little traction), leading to slipping and injuries. 

Building a new barn is a huge investment that your cows will live in for the next 20 to 30 years.  It is important that it’s designed properly to allow them to perform to their maximum potential.  We believe that sand stalls are a big part of the solution, and we strongly urge you to consider sand stalls for their benefits with respect to productivity and animal welfare. If you have any questions or require any information regarding the use of deep-bedded sand stalls or current dairy barn design recommendations, feel free to talk to us at RSLVS.

(Dr. Brian Keith, 2015)