Leading vet discusses management of cubicle beds for cow health

Moisture poses the biggest health risk to cows lying in cubicles and although cows can spend up to 14-hours a day lying down, the impact of the cubicle environment on mastitis levels is hugely underestimated.

That’s the view of leading vet and dairy management consultant Neil Howie who says that no matter who has the responsibility of managing the cubicle beds it’s is a job that has to be undertaken to a high standard.

“Cubicle hygiene poses a high risk to herd health if its importance in overall dairy herd management isn’t full recognised.

“Assessing the mastitis levels in many herds, when set against the standard national expectation for the mastitis count at 50 cases per 100 cows per year, suggests there’s a lot of room for improvement.

“An ideal bedding material will facilitate normal resting behaviour, measured by posture and duration, while precluding risk of trauma or infection to the skin , muscular-skeletal system and feet, eyes, respiratory system, alimentary tract, reproductive tract and mammary glands,” says Neil Howie.

The environmental coliforms that can occur in damp bedding pose the biggest risk to an increase in mastitis. “If the bedding is of an organic material and it gets wet the bugs will grow in it – simple as that.

“The bugs most commonly found in damp bedding are E.coli and strep uberis – particularly if straw or other organic material is used. Klebsiella is often found in sawdust bedded cubicles.

“Dryness is all things in the on-going challenge in order to maintain the health of cows lying in cubicles – and the bed must be at least 85% dry matter.”

Mr Howie says that a small amount of moisture, whether it comes in with the bedding or is delivered by the cows, will desiccate by air-drying if the bedding is not too deep and there is good “grooming” of the beds.

“But if that only happens when the bedding is too shallow to fulfil the other comfort requirements – or doesn’t happen and moisture is allowed to build-up – it’s an issue of cubicle bed management that needs to be tackled urgently.

With rubber mats, he believes they are too often considered to be doing the sole job of providing comfort.


“That is a fundamental mis-understanding of the purpose of the mat. There has to be something on top of the mat – and enough so that the mat can’t be seen.

“And if there is a fear by those who apply only small amounts of bedding that more bedding will increase the risk of a build-up of disease, then they have a design problem with the bed.”

Mr Howie says as well as managing the beds in the building, it’s equally important to have a high standard of storage facilities for bedding bound for the cubicle shed.

“It’s no good having fancy beds and then applying bedding that’s soiled or wet because it hasn’t been stored correctly. Bedding should be stored under a covered area and it’s even worth considering having a dedicated tractor to deliver it to the cubicles – and not the one that’s used with the muck-spreader.”

How much bedding

There continues to be wide debate over the depth of the bedding used on cubicle beds.

“The question is how much bedding is needed for the cow to lie comfortably and yet also enable her to bear her weight on the surface and give her the grip and security she needs to stand with confidence.

“That should be the benchmark, but to achieve it it’s important to observe cows and their behaviour in the cubicles.”

Mr Howie urges farmers to watch how cows stand up when out grazing. “If you see a cow stand up in a field, unless the ground is rock-solid, when she pushes herself up with her back feet, she sets her feet at 45 degrees to the ground so that they can push on the whole of the surface of the foot at that angle.


“If you’ve got a hard mattress-type bed and they try and do that they actually end up using their toes. So in terms of causing trauma to the foot and ultimately bruising it’s important to watch what cows actually do to stand up in your cubicles.

“When cows stand up a lot in cubicle beds it’s probably because they realise it’s too painful to get up once they’ve laid down,” says Neil Howie.

Neil Howie admits he’s not a big fan of the “total summer cleanout” of cubicles that so often happens when cows are turned out to grass.

“Using a steam cleaner with the best of intentions of getting cubicles really clean can be a waste of time and effort. It drenches the cubicles and as soon as the cows return they’ll bring the bugs back with them. A cow building is not a sterile environment and never will be.”