Cost and ease of handling are often the first considerations when it comes to bedding for dairy cattle. Ideally, bedding selection should really focus on what works best for the cow.
"The function of bedding is to keep cows clean and comfortable," said David Wolfgang, a field study coordinator and extension veterinarian at Penn State, during a Penn State Extension Tech Tuesday webinar earlier this month. "Look at cow comfort as the driver for bedding selection."
Clean stalls are more than just free of manure; they should also have a low bacteria load. Higher bacteria loads in bedding where the teat end is leads to more mastitis cases, noted Wolfgang. Bacteria grows in bedding over time. Some farms may put a lot of bedding in the front of stalls at one time and pull back fresh bedding from the front of the stalls when needed. Unfortunately, that bedding may be pre-incubated with millions of bacteria already.
One way to measure cleanliness of stalls is to hygiene score cows. There are many scoring systems available. The National Dairy FARM (Farmers Assuring Responsible Management) Program has a hygiene scoring system that works on a four-point scale.
1 - Clean
2 - Manure splatters up to the knee/hock
3 - Manure splatters up into udder and belly area
4 - Manure splatters up into udder and belly area and onto top of the cow
Cleanliness of the udder and rear legs is most important when it comes to udder health, said Wolfgang. Some research has shown that somatic cell score could change about 40,000 to 50,000 cells for each one-unit change in hygiene score.
Data also shows that improved hygiene scores could lead to 38 percent less cases of clinical mastitis and less prevalence of Johne's disease and Salmonella. Dirty cows are 21 percent more likely to be culled than their cleaner herdmates. And in cold weather, wet and dirty cows may need 15 to 20 percent more nutrients just to keep warm.
Wolfgang recommends producers aim to have 90 percent of cows classified as clean or very clean. Standard Plate Counts or Coliform Counts would serve as another way to keep tabs on bedding cleanliness.
Bedding should also protect cows from hard stall surfaces. Taking a look at cow hocks is a great indicator of stall design and surface condition. Again, the National Dairy FARM Program has a scoring system available to monitor hock health.
1 - No swelling, no hair missing
2 - No swelling, but bald area
3 - Evident swelling or lesion through the hide
Wolfgang encourages farms to maintain 90 percent of cows showing no or minimal evidence of hock trauma.
The author is an associate editor and covers animal health, dairy housing and equipment, and nutrient management. She grew up on a dairy farm near Plymouth, Wis., and previously served as a University of Wisconsin agricultural extension agent. She received a master's degree from North Carolina State University and a bachelor's from University of Wisconsin-Madison.