Lying Down on the Job

When it comes to choosing a free-stall surface for your dairy herd, why not consider what the cows prefer? A recent study let cows decide on the comfort level of several popular mats and mattresses.

As well as the health of feet and legs, and udders and teats, cow comfort affects milk production, eating habits, feed intake, fertility and longevity. By improving cow comfort, you not only address these issues, but any concerns about animal welfare or consumer perception.

One way to judge cow comfort is to measure how much time animals spend lying in their stalls. A research paper, presented at a joint conference of American and Canadian Societies of Agricultural Engineers in Toronto this summer, reported on a study that compared dairy cow preference for lying on 11 different free-stall surfaces. The study's objectives were:

  • to assess the lying comfort of the cows before and after the installation of the different free-stall surfaces;
  • to study the effects of the different surfaces on cow behaviour;
  • to compare the occupancy level of the 11 different stall surfaces;
  • to determine how cow preference for the surface materials changed over time.

The five-month experiment was carried out on a commercial dairy farm in Belgium between December 1997 and April 1998. The barn was a three-row free-stall barn with 94 stalls and a slatted floor. All stalls had a concrete base.

During the first month of the study, all the stalls were bedded with sawdust to allow the cows time to adjust to them. After this adjustment period, researchers covered 88 stalls with the 11 different surface materials. The cows were allowed two weeks to adapt to different stall surfaces. They were then observed during the remainder of the study.

This observation period was divided into three separate phases to track any changes in stall use over time. Housing conditions did not change during this observation period.

The study compared these 11 different stall surfaces:
Reference: concrete base bedded with sawdust.
AgriTarp: tubes filled with rubber crumbs and covered with non-woven wear layer.
Alanta Waterbed: double-sided rubber mat filled with water.
Comfort Mat: soft rubber mat.
Comfy Cushion: tubes filled with rubber crumbs and covered with woven wear layer.
Enkamat K2000: compound mat with wear-resistant top layer, impermeable coating, reinforced textile, second impermeable coating and a polyamide curling underlay.
Kraiburg Soft Bed System: compound mat with a rubber mat top layer and polyurethane foam underlay.
Blister Mattress: compound mat with soft supporting layer, top water-tight layer and a PVC back.
Pasture Mat: tubes filled with rubber crumbs and covered with non-woven wear layer.
Supercomfort Cow Mattress: soft and elastic supporting layer of rubber tiles, with a top water-tight layer and a PVC back.
Kraiburg Cubicle Mat Type KE: traditional hard rubber mat.

Researchers made observations four times during the study. They noted the behaviour and position of 30 selected cows every 15 minutes for a 24-hour period. Other observations used a video camera, with analysis every five minutes. The activities recorded were: lying in a stall; standing with two or four legs in the stall; standing in the lying area (between the second and third rows of stalls); standing in the feeding area (between the feed manger and the first row of stalls); standing in the drinking area; eating; and miscellaneous (standing in holding area, being milked in parlour).

The table on this page shows a classification of the 11 free-stall surface materials, based on the average percentage occupancy for "lying in a stall" during the observation phase periods. Four occupancy levels can be distinguished: lower than 20 per cent; between 20 and 30 per cent; between 30 and 50 per cent; higher than 50 per cent.

Here are the study's results:

  • The cows' comfort increased after installation of the mats and mattresses. This was concluded because the average lying time increased and the average standing time decreased.
  • The cows demonstrated a definite preference for four mattresses (Supercomfort Cow Mattress, Krai-burg Soft Bed System, Pasture Mat and Comfort Mat).
  • The study demonstrated that cow preference became more distinct during the experiment.
  • The occupancy level of five mattresses increased over time. (Super-comfort Cow Mattress, Kraiburg Soft Bed System, Alanta Waterbed, Comfort Mat and Comfy Cushion).
  • The occupancy level of four surfaces decreased (Agritarp, Enkamat K2000, the Kraiburg rubber mat, and the concrete and sawdust reference).
  • The Pasture Mat had a high occupancy level in the second phase of the observation period but decreased in the third phase.

We learned from this research that cows prefer lying on mattresses and mats to lying on concrete with a little bedding. They would also rather lie on the more compressible surfaces than on the rigid surfaces. The compressibility of some mattresses decreases over time, and they become less attractive to the cows. This study is to be continued to see if these changes become more distinct over a longer period.

What the research doesn't show is how well the various stall surfaces stand up over time. It also doesn't indicate whether any of the surfaces caused abrasions or other injuries to the feet and legs of the cows, or what, if any, effects the stall surfaces had on bacterial growth.

Experience shows that all mattresses and mats should be covered with some bedding to reduce abrasions and to keep the surface dry. The stall surface still needs to be maintained to keep it dry and clean.

The big advantages of the mats and mattresses continue to be their ability to provide a uniform comfort layer under the cow, improve traction and, although it's not totally eliminated, reduce bedding use.

Tests like these give you some guidelines on the free-stall surfaces cows prefer. When choosing a surface for your herd, also keep in mind the durability of a product, how easy it will be to maintain, and its effect on feet and legs, and udder health.

Table One: Average Percentage Occupancy for Lying in a Stall
Mattress Type Percentage Occupancy
Supercomfort Cow Mattress
Kraiburg Soft Bed System
Pasture Mat
Comfort Mat
Alanta Waterbed
Comfy Cushion
Blister Mattress
Enkamat K2000
Kraiburg Rubber Mat

Article reference: Sonck B., Daelemans J., and Langemans J., 1999. Preference Test for Free Stall Surface Material for Dairy Cows. American Society of Agricultural Engineers Paper No. 994011, St. Joseph, MI.

For more information:
Toll Free: 1-877-424-1300