So I figure you guys, like me, probably sleep on a mattress. But what do cows sleep on? You could let one sleep on your mattress but they would be a little heavy for it. They’d be real comfy the first couple times then the mattress would just be flattened and offer no cushioning. Since cows are so large most barns are floored predominantly with concrete to hold up to the wear and tear.
Worry not, the cows don’t sleep on concrete. In order to produce as much milk as they can cows need to be comfortable. As you can imagine sleeping on concrete would not be very comfortable, so then what do the cows sleep on?
Well, it depends on a few different factors, what type of barn they live in, the waste handling system, and what is available to the farmer.
There are three basic styles that all dairy cow barns can fall under in regards to sleeping arrangements. Free-stall barns have bedded stalls and the cows are free to roam around the barn as they choose. Tie-stall barns have stalls similar to free-stall barns but the cows are assigned their own spaces where they are tied up unless being let out side or possibly being let out to be milked (depending on parlor style). Bedded pack barns are large wide open areas of bedding where the cows can lie down freely where they choose with an alley and feed bunk along a side.
Cows poop a lot. Inevitably some of their bedding gets mixed in with it and impacts the waste handling system. Some beddings are more abrasive (sand) than others and contribute to more wear and tear on equipment.
Lastly a farmer can only use a type of bedding if it is readily available and affordable. Something could be the most amazing bedding in the world for cows, but if it isn’t available or is really expensive then farmers won’t use it.
So what are the main bedding materials used for cows? The four most common are Sawdust, Sand, Mattresses (specially made for cows), and composted manure solids. People use all sorts of other stuff as well; farmers tend to be a resourceful bunch.
If you visit either of the UNH dairy facilities you will see that they bed with sawdust. Sawdust is typically readily available in areas where there is a large amount of forestry related industry. It is easy to use and easy on equipment and cows. One drawback to sawdust is that it is organic therefore pathogens can possibly grow on the sawdust itself.
Sand is also readily available, probably even more so than sawdust. It is important, however, that you get the right kind of sand; you want the nice soft rounded stuff with no sharp edges. Sand is often used in free-stall barns and is usually laid down in the stalls about 8-10 inches deep. If you've ever fallen asleep on the beach you know how comfortable lying on nice sand can be. Now imagine you’re a 1200lb cow that needs a firmer sleeping surface than you to be comfy and you’ll understand why they like lying in sand so much. I’d argue it’s probably more comfortable than sleeping in the pasture for them. Another benefit to sand is that it is inorganic meaning that pathogens cannot grow on the bedding itself making it more sanitary than most other options.
Specialized mattresses have been developed to be used in cow stalls. They are much firmer and tougher than the ones you or I sleep on because of the size of a cow but are designed with similar purposes in mind. They are often rubber based with some sort of foam cushioning. There are even water mattresses that have been made for cows. A mattress, like sand, is less likely to harbor pathogens because of its inorganic nature.
The last type of bedding I’ll talk about is composted manure solids. This is what is left after the waste goes through a machine that separates the liquid and solid portions. The solid portion is then composted to kill any pathogens that may be living in it then used as bedding. Like sawdust manure solids can grow pathogens but when managed properly can make very good bedding.
The type of bedding used on a farm varies drastically I've seen anything from chopped up newspaper to corn stalks. The important thing to remember is that the cow's comfort is paramount to both the cow's longevity and milk production. One handy trick you can use to see if a cow’s stall is comfy enough is the knee drop test. You simply drop to your knees in their stall; if it hurts you it probably hurts them too. Just remember, a comfortable cow is a happy cow.