Mattresses or Sand : Which supports business and cows better?

Cow comfort is one of the leading design features of modern dairy barn construction and farm management. Ensuring that cows are optimizing their feed intake, maximizing laying time, reducing injury and infections, and ultimately producing large amounts of quality milk to sustain the farm is on every farmer’s mind. One of the major areas of focus for making cows comfortable is in the stall, particularly what she is laying on. It seems like everyone has an opinion on this – sand is the best, mattresses are easier to maintain, don’t forget about waterbeds, and how the heck do you dry out manure solids? I’d like throw my hat in the ring, given my 25 years of thinking and innovating on this particular area of the barn.

Many decisions on cow stall comfort over the last 15 years have stemmed from large amounts of research involving sand bedding, rubber-filled mattresses, and rubber mats. Research results during this period suggest that cows laying on sand beds have high mobility scores, hock health is improved, laying time is high, milk production is high, and cows are cleaner (Cook 2004; Fulwider 2007). The results have shown that sand is one of the best beddings for cows and numerous farms that had been using various types of mattresses in the early 2000s wholeheartedly switched to the “golden standard” – sand.

Fast forward five years and the sand situation has grown more complex. Sand remains one of the best beddings for cow comfort, but farmers have quickly realized that sand bedding is a much more complicated bedding to manage than they anticipated. Sand used to be toted as an economical bedding option; that was before the sand-laden manure needed to be handled and the extra maintenance costs on machinery was calculated, ranging from 50% to 80% higher (Rodriguez 2014).

It took a while because the change was slow, but farmers began to notice that the land where they were spreading their separated sand wasn’t yielding like it used to, required more amendments, and was actually changing from a silty or clay loam to less productive sandy loam – an unanticipated environmental cost of sand bedding that needed to go somewhere.

Cornell University did a study in 2003 that calculated the cost per cow per year to bed with sand was $75 for a farm of 500 cows (Gooch et al. 2003). An updated accounting of the cost of sand bedding as compared to mattresses and dried manure solids is currently being conducted by a University of Wisconsin group.

Additionally, many studies whose results concluded that cows laying on sand have improved health, locomotion, production, and fewer mastitis outbreaks have been using older technology mattresses for a comparison. Crumb rubber mattresses have been the main comparison in the majority of studies since the 1990s when we first put them on the market. The rubber-filled mattress was a great leap forward in cow comfort and stall management, but the innovation has drawbacks such as the rubber compacting and the mattress getting harder over time, thus losing some of the attributes that come along with cows laying on a soft surface. This 20th century mattress technology continues to be the straw man in many research studies despite the fact that cow mattress manufacturers have spent the last ten years bringing newer technologies to market, improving on all aspects of stall comfort.

While the innovation in sand bedding is figuring out how to manage it after it has been used, mattress manufacturers have spent their time improving the mattress itself, to the point where cows now get the same advantages of sand by laying on the mattress. Intrinsically, there is getter benefit to improving a mattress to emulate the comfort of sand due to the lack of large capital investment and lower operating costs over time. For instance, a North Brook Farm Superstall system, which includes a memory foam mattress and waterproof topcover currently, in 2014, retails somewhere around $180 with a 5 year full warranty. A capital investment of $180 per cow spread over 5 years equals $35 without any additional cost in manure handling machinery or wear on equipment. In reality, many farmers that install mattresses could get rid of much of their sand handling equipment and streamline their operation thus reducing labor costs as well. Bedding stalls is still required twice a week with daily raking, but we are finding mattresses result in a more uniform, predictable laying surface than sand, which after 20-25kg is kicked out of the stall per day can vary widely from best management practice standards established by university researchers.

Other factors that have emerged from a decade of research on sand are related to the complications of sand during the colder (and hotter) months of the year. Many farmers in New York and Wisconsin talk with us at length about the complications of managing sand stalls in the winter time – from acquiring sand from frozen pits to the cost of constructing new buildings to store sand through the winter. Besides managing sand is cold weather, university research also shows a fairly tight temperature envelope in which sand is preferred by cows.

Being in upstate New York, I know very well how cold winters get and it’s not hard to extrapolate how cold Wisconsin winters can be as well. Researchers at Iowa State found a 30% reduction in sand stall usage from summer to winter while mattress stall usage varied only 10% during the study, actually increasing in the winter months (Thoreson et al. 2006). University of Wisconsin researchers backed up that tendency, showing that cows have the highest stall usage when temperatures were between 20 degrees and 61 degrees. Below 20 degrees and also above 60 degrees cows used mattress stalls more frequently (80.9% to 64% respectively; Wagner-Storch et al. 2003). These results suggest that sand may be the “golden standard” in a fairly small temperature range, and farmers should take note of these changes in stall usage given our dramatic temperature swings probably result in greater variability in milk production and cow health.

As a side note, dual chambered waterbeds were also tested in these studies and stall usage never approached those of either sand or rubber-filled mattresses, peaking at 71% stall occupancy compared to 89% and 84% for mattresses and sand respectively for the same time period (Wagner-Storch et al. 2003). Moreover, when stocking densities were decreased from 100% to 70%, waterbed occupancy dropped to 18% while mattresses remained in the mid-50% range suggesting that when given a choice, waterbeds are certainly not preferred to mattresses or sand for that matter. We’ll be writing more this later.

With so much information and options available to the modern dairy farmer it is sometimes difficult to keep up with current and past research on the numerous choices of what to put underneath your cows. Recent advances in mattress technology that vastly outperform rubber-filled mattresses in both comfort and durability (i.e. don’t compact and get hard), and ultimately produces a stall environment every bit as inviting and supportive as sand without many of the economical drawbacks. More research needs to incorporate these new mattress types and begin advocating for their adoption, especially, into barns that have been struggling with sand and other bedding options. There is no one perfect bedding option, but continued innovation and development of better mattresses will make dairy farmers more efficient, more economically sustainable, and their cows more comfortable and profitable.


Cook, N.B., Bennett, T.B., and Nordlund, K.V. 2004. Effect of Freestall Surface on Daily Activity Patterns in Dairy Cows with Relevance to Lameness Prevalence. J. Dairy Sci. 87:2912-2922.

Fulwider WK, Grandin T, Garrick DJ, Engle TE, Lamm WD, Dalsted NL, et al. Influence of free-stall base on tarsal joint lesions and hygiene in dairy cows. J. Dairy Sci. 90:3559–3566, 2007.

Gooch, CA, Wedel AW, Karszes J. Economic Analysis for a Dairy Waste Treatment System that Employs Mechanical Separation of Bedding Sand from Scraped Sand-Laden Dairy Manure. PRO-DAIRY University of Cornell Cooperative Extension. Ithaca, NY. White paper published 2003. 16 pages.

Rodriguez, F. Rest assured: Bedding options for robotic milking facilities. Published at March 26, 2014.

Thoreson, D, Timms, LL, and D Lay. 2006. Dairy Free Stall Preference Field Study. Animal Industry Report: AS 652, ASL R2100. Available at:

Wagner-Storch AM, Palmer RW, Kammel DW. Factors affecting stall use for different freestall bases. J. Dairy Sci.86:2253–2266, 2003.

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