Originally appeared in Progressive Dairyman January 21, 2019.
Promoting a surface on which cows want to lie down is about more than just comfort. The bedding material a dairy chooses plays a critical role in preventing mastitis, reducing injury, regulating temperature and fitting into the overall management system.
One measure of bedding quality is the concentration of environmental pathogens, which play a role in milk quality and are major causes of mastitis – clinical and subclinical. Environmental pathogen concentrations are impacted by the dry matter and pH of the bedding materials. As bedding dry matter increases, the concentration of environmental pathogens decreases, and as the pH of the bedding material increases, environmental pathogen concentrations increase.
Both of these factors impact the quality of bedding material. This is why stalls need to be cleaned while cows are milking each day, at least twice daily. We cannot forget that rain and moisture from the ground lead to elevated bacteria counts also. There tends to be a seasonal effect on the concentration of environmental pathogens in bedding material, with summer having the highest concentration of pathogens likely due to temperature and humidity.
We can control contamination of teats from environmental pathogens with good management practices. Teats become contaminated through contact with contaminated bedding and other environmental risks. The number of bacteria on the teat end has been positively correlated to the number of bacteria on bedding. Adequate amounts of dry bedding ensure minimal contamination of teat skin with bacteria. There are a number of factors that lead to increased bacterial population of bedding material including ambient temperature, humidity, bedding management, ventilation, cow density, barn design, bedding dry matter and bedding storage.
Strive for these seven bedding quality benchmarks:
- Bedding must be comfortable to lie on.
- Bedding should be cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
- Dry bedding is critical year-round for cow comfort and to reduce pathogen growth. As bedding dry matter increases, bacterial populations have been shown to decrease. (Bedding is one of the primary sources of exposure to environmental pathogens, and maximum bacterial growth occurs within 24 hours and up to 48 hours of adding bedding material.)
- Good footing from bedding prevents injury in the stall and in the alley.
- Nonabrasive bedding promotes cow comfort and aides in injury reduction.
- Bedding should drain well to keep cows dry and limit pathogen growth.
- Bedding material should provide ease of use, including: working with the housing option and design; availability; compatibility with waste storage facilities and disposal methods; and ease of cleaning stalls and adding new bedding for farm labor.