Recent research claims sand is an excellent bedding option for cow comfort and bacteriological control

There are many types of bedding that can be used in freestall barns. Producers should first identify which type of bedding material will best fit their dairy operations to provide maximum cow comfort with the available resources. Proper stall design depends on bedding type.

Research claims sand is an excellent bedding option for cow comfort and bacteriological control. Sand provides an even and comfortable lying area for cows when maintained properly. The dry and inorganic characteristic of sand reduces build-up of moisture and promotes less bacterial growth. However, managing sand laden with manure is a big challenge in some dairy operations. The abrasive nature of sand leads to increased equipment wear and tear. The majority of dairy producers using sand bedding in their freestall barns are committed to using it. These producers feel the benefits of cow health and comfort outweighs the headaches of manure handling.

Proper stall curb design and management practice are two critical factors that can determine the success or failure of sand bedding systems in freestall dairy barns.

Rear curb design

Stall design and operational management of sand bedding requires careful attention to details. Rear curb in stalls that use sand as a bedding material need to be designed a bit differently than stalls using mattresses or rubber mats as a stall base material. With mattresses, the width of the rear curb (normally 15 centimetres) is often included in the resting space for cows since most mattresses are installed with the rear-most portion of the mattress positioned within 2.5 cm of the sidewall of the curb. With sand-bedded stalls, the rear curb does not contribute to the resting area so additional space should be provided, typically 72 to 74 inches measured from the alley side of the rear curb to the brisket board, if used1.

The rear curb should be high enough to prevent manure from entering the stall, but low enough to allow cows to easily enter and exit the stall. It should be at least 15 cm high in slatted barns and 20 cm high in scrape and flush barns to prevent overflows from the alleys. In comparison, curbs installed with mattresses or mats have curb heights up to 30 cm.

Concrete or compacted earthen or sand bed can be used as the base for stalls that use sand as bedding material. In stalls with earthen compacted bases, the depth of sand should be substantially high, at least 15 cm deep. A thin layer of sand bedding can cause pockets to form in the earthen base when cows getting up and down disturb the surface. Without periodic maintenance, these pockets deepen, making it difficult for cows to rise. These pockets can also trap moisture and manure, contributing to udder health problems. A good depth of sand, which is about 15 cm minimum in stall area, can act as both base and bedding2.

Managing sand in stalls

Regular management and maintenance of stalls are necessary to ensure clean, comfortable cows. Stalls should be checked at least once daily. Manure and wet material should be removed, and bedding should be raked to provide a clean, dry and uniform resting place.

Maintaining proper sand depth in stalls is critical. Recent research from the University of British Columbia (Drissler and others) showed sand level in stalls affects lying time. Cows spent less time lying in stalls as the sand level in deep bedded stalls dropped below the curb. Lying times decreased by 10 minutes for every 1 cm decrease in bedding level below the curb3.

Lying time versus depth of sand

There should always be a minimum of 15 cm of sand in a deep-bedded freestall barn. A good practice is to refill the stall as soon as the sand level drops to 2 to 5 cm below the top of the curb.

Bill Bickert, agricultural engineer at Michigan State University, suggests a sand slope of three to four per cent from the front to the back of the stall helps position the cows squarely in the stall when they lie.

Adding sand to the stalls is labour intensive and difficult to distribute evenly. The simplest types of equipment are 1 to 1.5 cubic yard front-end loader buckets, mostly used in smaller farms. Larger farms often choose trailer slingers with a bigger yard capacity. Loaded, these trailers weigh 14 to 20 tons, so floors, and especially slatted gutters, must be constructed to handle this load. One goal of putting sand in the stalls with a slinger is to put in less sand and do it more often to keep the stall just above curb level. This should reduce the amount of sand in the manure without sacrificing cow comfort4.

Sand slinger

It is a good practice to level the sand in a stall. Grooming helps redistribute the piled sand and enhances the process of aeration and drying. Some producers level it manually with a rake. Many producers use homemade leveling tools on a skid steer. Some producers find it harder to fill in holes deeper than 20 cm. Producers prefer shallow bedding to overcome this situation. In shallow bedding, normally 5 to 12 cm rubber mats are recessed into the bed and covered with 5 to 7.5 cm of sand. Brooms work better to level sand on mats.

Leveling with a skid steer

Some producers do not level the stalls at all and let the cows level it themselves. For self-leveling, there should be enough sand in the stall at all times to fill the low spots. Frequent bedding is required for self-leveling.


Research has shown the inorganic, dry and cool characteristics of sand improves cow comfort and reduces bacterial growth. Stall design and good sand management within the stall are critical to the success of this bedding option. Despite some challenges, producers can better handle sand-laden manure using innovative technology and advanced equipment. The benefits to producers are improved cow health and comfort, which outweigh the headaches of handling manure.

For more information, refer to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs' (OMAFRA) factsheet entitled Sand Laden Manure Handling and Storage. It can be found at Sand-Laden Manure Handling and Storage. This article was originally printed in the Milk Producer Magazine.


Drissler, M., M. Gaworski, C. B. Tucker, and D.M. Veira, Freestall Maintenance: Effects of Lying Behaviour of Cattle. J. Dairy Sci. 2005 88:2381-2387. Bickert, W. G., B. Holmes, K. Janni, D. Kammel, R. Stowell, and J. Zulovich. 2000. Dairy Stall Housing and Equipment. 7th ed. Mid-West Plan Service, Iowa State University, Ames. Ing. G.J. Staal : What You Need to Know About Sand (in Freestall) and Other Systems. Gooch, C. A., Scott F. Inglis: Sand for Bedding Dairy Cow Stalls.

1Curt A. Gooch, P.E. and Scott F. Inglis.

2Dairy Freestall Housing and Equipment MWPS - 7.

3Source: OMAFRA Information sheet

4Ing.G.J Staal

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