Managing Free Stall Bedding Materials: Part 1 of 3

In order to control the incidence of bovine mastitis, producers must reduce exposure to mastitis-causing pathogens as much as possible. One way to reduce exposure is through the choice and management of bedding material. In this three part series, Joe Hogan, professor of Animal Sciences at Ohio State University, explains how producers can do so. Hogan highlights all types of bedding, from sand to sawdust to recycled manure solids, as well as management techniques, with the ultimate goal of lowering the occurrence of mastitis on the farm.


Due to the fact that cows spend 8–14 hours each day lying down with their udders in direct contact, bedding choice is very closely related to the bacterial exposure of the cows, said Hogan. For this reason, if one is hoping to control environmental mastitis pathogens, assessing bedding material is a good place to start.

Bedding materials are primary sources of mastitis-causing environmental pathogens. Populations of these bacteria in bedding are related to the number of bacteria on teat ends and rates of clinical mastitis. Consequently, reducing the number of bacteria in bedding generally reduces the incidence of environmental mastitis in a herd. Environmental mastitis pathogens include coliforms and environmental streptococci. The primary transfer of these pathogens from the environment to teat ends does not occur during milking but between milkings. Coliforms and streptococci cannot live on teat skin for long periods of time. If these bacteria are present in large numbers on teat skin, it is the result of recent contamination from a source such as bedding. Therefore, the number of these bacteria on teat skin is most often a reflection of the cow’s exposure to the contaminated bedding.

So where does one start?

“A practical question to ask, when evaluating the nature of teat end exposure from bedding, is whether the focus should be on adapting to the use of specific products that reduce exposure or give attention to management practices which will minimize exposure,” said Hogan.

Ideally, he said, producers will choose bedding that does not support bacterial growth, and management practices will work to prevent the contamination and soiling of bedding.

Choosing the right product

So how do producers go about selecting bedding material? The criteria, said Hogan, has changed over the last 30 years. Bedding costs are one of the highest on-farm expenses in dairy production. In the past, said Hogan, dairy farmers used by-products of the dairy operation itself or cheap and readily available product from local industries.

“Many deficiencies associated with some of these products were tolerated as a balance to their low cost and local accessibility,” said Hogan.

One of the biggest downfalls of using readily-available organic byproducts such as sawdust, corn stalks and straw, was the fact that they easily cultivate mastitis-causing pathogens. While sand consistently has lower bacteria counts and provides increased cow comfort, it is not compatible in most liquid manure handling and storage systems. So what are the solutions?

Stay tuned for our next post on types of bedding and management solutions for each.

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