Cubicle bedding materials

The challenge is to provide an optimal cubicle surface that provides thermal insulation, softness, traction, low risk of abrasion, easily maintained, easy to clean and cost-effective to initially install.

If comfortable cubicle base and bedding, along with the correct cubicle dimensions are used, then cows will be encouraged to spend time lying. This will have a direct bearing on rumination and the condition of their feet and the incidence of lameness.

Constructing a cubicle bed from concrete is a common practice. However, bare concrete is not an acceptable surface and, to ensure cows spend time lying in the cubicle, it should be covered with bedding. There are many bedding options available and each have advantages and disadvantages.

Some choices are:

  • Straw (chopped or long straw)
  • Sawdust
  • Shavings
  • Wood ash

In many cases, the choice of cubicle bedding is dictated not by the requirements of the cow but by the requirements of the farm's existing slurry handling system. Numerous studies have demonstrated that when concrete cubicle beds are compared with softer alternatives, the cow will show a preference for the softer alternative.

Bare concrete or hard rubber mats without bedding are unacceptable cubicle surfaces. The softer the bedded surface, the more acceptable the cubicle will be to the cow.

Sand-bedded cubicles have become very popular in GB. Producers who opt to use sand accept that there is an ongoing labour requirement to keep the beds raked clean and replenished with fresh sand. Ideally, the sand bed should be filled to kerb height. Piles of sand stored in the front of the cubicle are obstructions to lying, rising and resting behaviours and should be raked and flattened out daily. Sand level is important for lying time, when the depth of sand begins to decline, occupancy and lying times also decline. As sand level drops below the kerb, cows spend less time lying in the cubicles. Deep sand-bedded cubicles have been shown to decrease lameness prevalence by half in comparison to rubber mats and mattresses with little or no bedding. Sand decreases hock lesions and their severity when compared with mattresses. Cow cleanliness is not improved on sand but sand has a lower bacteria count compared to sawdust or straw but no effect on somatic cell count has been demonstrated. Although the initial investment with sand-based cubicles is low, the labour associated with filling and maintaining the beds and the adverse effects that sand can have on waste handling systems need to be considered.

When occupancy was observed, deep bedded sand and rubber filled mattresses consistently showed the highest occupancy while concrete and rubber mats consistently showed the lowest occupancy. 

Not all mattresses are equally attractive to cows and it has been demonstrated that some mattresses have a higher occupancy than other mattresses.

Regardless of the type of cubicle base or bedding used, cubicles should be routinely bedded and raked out.

It is important to observe your cows' legs, particularly the hocks and knees for signs of severe hair loss, abrasions or swelling as this may indicate insufficient cubicle comfort.

Although a considerable amount of work has been done looking at the features of different lying surfaces, in general, researchers have failed to demonstrate a financial benefit from investing in one technology or another. However, the majority of the studies have demonstrated improvements in cow comfort and lying times and a reduction in physical damage which will indirectly influence cow longevity and welfare and may be the driving force from milk buyers and consumers for such investments.