Creature Comforts

Comfortable cows are happier and healthier and make more milk. That’s why the University of Missouri’s Foremost Dairy Research Center outside Columbia, Mo., is taking cow comfort to a new level by providing their milking herd with waterbeds in their free stalls.

Yes, waterbeds. But these aren’t the waterbeds of your typical 1970s-chic bedroom. Made by Advanced Comfort Technology, Inc., in Sun Prairie, Wis., the dual-chamber mattresses are made of layers of rubber and fabric tough enough that even the tines of a pitchfork won’t puncture them.

In October 2018, Foremost Dairy installed 80 of the waterbeds in half of the freestall barn to replace the rubber mattresses that had begun to show wear and tear. MU Extension veterinarian Dr. Scott Poock and dairy specialist Stacey Hamilton are conducting an informal study to see how the waterbeds affect cow health and productivity. The study wouldn’t with­stand the rigors of formal journal research, Poock said, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

“We needed to renovate the old mattresses somehow,” Poock said. “They were getting to the end of their lifespan, and we’d seen these waterbeds at some of the dairy meetings. We didn’t just want to go in whole-hog, so that’s why we only put them in half of the stalls. We wanted to see how they work.”

The researchers monitor cows on cameras to see how they use the stalls and record data about resting times and milk production. Poock said he was pleased with how quickly the cows adapted to the new beds.

“All I can compare is what the cows were doing before the waterbeds came in and what they did afterward,” he said. “When they come into the waterbed, they tend to lie down sooner than they did with the old mattress, and fewer of them leave without lying down. Both of those things will lead to better cow health.”

High-producing dairy cows are supposed to lie down any­where from 12-14 hours a day, Poock explained. The theory is that when they are lying down, more blood flows through their mammary gland. The more blood that gets through, the more milk they make. Additionally, lying down prevents lameness. Cows with comfortable bedding tend to have fewer issues with legs and hooves.

“Lameness impacts their ability to come into heat, their ability to socialize and their ability to get pregnant,” Poock said. “So anything we can do to make them more comfortable and lie down where they have less trouble with those issues is going to help them be healthier.”

And at Foremost, the cows decide what they want to do and when they do it, he added.

“In our free stalls, the cows can eat when they want to eat, they can lie down when they want to lie down and they can so­cialize when they want to socialize,” Poock said. “Our Holsteins average about 80 pounds of milk per day, the Guernseys aver­age around 55 pounds and our cross-bred cows are hovering around 65-70 pounds. We expect those differences between the groups, and we want them to be as comfortable as possible while they’re producing.”

DCC Waterbeds perform differently than traditional rubber mattresses, explained Chief Operating Officer Amy Throndsen. The technology uses two chambers and the gentle movement of water to float cows’ pressure points, lessening the heat and friction that can cause hock lesions and other issues like mastitis.

“When cows lie down and get up, there’s a front pillow or water pocket to cushion their knees,” Throndsen said. “There are single-chamber waterbeds out there, but with ours there’s no water transfer between the front and back chambers, ensuring consistent comfort on both the knees and hind pres­sure points—even after thousands of uses.”

Advanced Comfort Technology is a family business estab­lished in the late 1990s by Amy’s father, Dean Throndsen, who invented the dual-chamber beds.

“He worked for a company that sold single-chamber beds, but he knew the design was flawed,” Throndsen said. “Unfor­tunately or fortunately, depending how you look at it, when he took the design change to the company, they said, ‘No, thank you.’ It took him a few years to find an engineer who understood how nuanced the change was but how significant of a difference it would make. From there, he got connected with a patent attorney and manufacturing company, and here we are 20 years later.”

DCC Water­beds now has worldwide patents and has installations in more than 35 countries.

“We have an estimated 15- to 20-year life expectancy on our beds, with the earliest beds being installed in North America in 1999,” Throndsen said.

Throndsen said most dairy farmers switch to the waterbeds because of the challenges they encounter with other methods. Traditional mat­tresses can wear over time. Any rips and tears can hold manure and top bedding like sawdust or shavings. Sand, considered the gold standard, can be expensive, requires frequent replacement and management, hours of intense labor and constant wear and tear on manure equipment.

“Back when my grandpa had cows, we made a stall out of concrete and put various materials on top of it—shavings, corn stalks or straw—to somewhat cushion it,” Poock said. “When herds started expanding, and we went to free stalls, we used mattresses. Then we thought maybe that isn’t as comfortable, so we put something on top of it to help provide more cushion. And then sand came along. Sand gives the most and forms to the cows the best.”

However, sand has its drawbacks, Poock said. Cows kick it out of the stalls, and it has to be replaced at least partially every week. If Foremost used sand, it would take 50 pounds for each of the dairy’s 160 stalls. The waterbeds are an easier option.

“A lot of times, the reason a dairy farmer begins looking at our waterbeds is because something isn’t working for their operation,” Throndsen said. “Some farms might be doing a great job in managing their traditional mattresses or sand bedding, but boy, are they spending a ton of money and time doing it. When you’re choosing between spending time with your family and shoveling sand every day, people begin considering other options. They want the same level of cow comfort but to mini­mize their inputs while doing so.”

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