Brian and Chris Costello are committed to using mattresses in their tie-stall barn.

Since installing mattresses almost six years ago, the Costello’s 80-cow herd experiences few, if any, abrasions or swollen hocks. In fact, they attribute their herd average daily milk production of 100 pounds per cow, in part, to the cow comfort achieved from using mattresses. Yet, the Malone, Wis., couple knows it must manage the mattresses properly to have continued success.

Use these suggestions to help you get the most out of your mattresses:

Establish a daily routine
A mattress should provide a clean, dry and comfortable resting place for a cow, notes Dan McFarland, extension agricultural engineer in York, Pa. A clean, dry mattress discourages growth of mastitis-causing pathogens. To keep your mattresses in good shape, establish a daily cleaning schedule. Include these practices:

  • Remove wet spots.

    Good stall management is fundamental to mattress care, explains Bill Bickert, agricultural engineer at Michigan State University. That includes removing wet bedding and manure from the stalls at least two or three times per day, perhaps at each milking.

    For the Costellos, a plastic scraper works nicely to remove wet spots. In addition, they use a broom to sweep each mattress when they turn the cows outside.

    After you remove the wet spots, rake or brush some dry bedding over the area to keep the cows from coming in contact with the damp area.

  • Keep the alleys clean.

    When a cow enters a stall, she drags manure into the stall from the alley. This can soil the bedding and make the mattress cover slippery. A dirty alley only contributes to these problems. Therefore, scrape or flush alleys often to keep them clean. Again, this practice can coincide with each milking in a free-stall barn, or when cows are turned outside between milkings in a tie-stall barn.

Add bedding regularly
The biggest problem with mattresses occurs when people skimp on or don’t use any bedding, Bickert says. Essentially, bedding serves two purposes: it absorbs moisture, which helps to keep the mattresses clean and dry, and it contributes to cow comfort.

Your choice of bedding will often depend on what is available in your area. Some common choices include kiln-dried sawdust, wood shavings or chopped straw. Remember, you must keep these organic bedding materials dry to discourage the growth of mastitis-causing pathogens.

Supply a layer of dry bedding — about 0.5 to 1.5 inches — on top of each mattress, recommends Rick Stowell, agricultural engineer at Ohio State University.

And, be sure to use good-quality bedding. McFarland uses the following test to identify good-quality bedding: Scoop up a handful of bedding, such as sawdust, and squeeze it in your hand. Drop the bedding from your hand and observe the amount of long pieces of material, such as splinters or slivers, that stick to your hand. Good-quality bedding measures 0.375 inches or less. If the bedding material exceeds this length, be sure that you use at least a 1-inch-thick layer of bedding on top of each mattress to prevent abrasion to the cow.

At a minimum, add fresh bedding on top of the mattresses at least once per week. You may need to add bedding more frequently, such as every two to three days, depending on when you begin to notice bare spots. Adequate bedding keeps your cows clean and prevents them from injuring themselves when they get up or when they enter and exit a stall.

Design a comfortable stall
A soft, comfortable mattress encourages your cows to lie in the stalls. Likewise, proper stall design contributes to cow comfort and stall acceptance.

Unlike sand, a mattress rests on top of the concrete stall base instead of resting level with the curb. Because of this, it may be necessary to adjust the height of the neck rail and the stall divider in a mattress-based stall. (To position these components properly, please see, “Stall design,” above.) Likewise, it may be necessary to reduce the height of the curb, depending on the thickness of a mattress. Mattress thicknesses will vary from one manufacturer to the next, so be sure to work with your dealer to position stall components before you install the mattresses.

In addition, provide a slope of 3 percent to 4 percent from the front of the stall to the rear curb to encourage proper resting habits and adequate drainage, Stowell says.

Mattresses don’t last forever, so you will need to replace them in order to maintain a comfortable bed. Mattress durability varies, so it’s difficult to judge the life expectancy of a mattress. However, tears in the top cover, or a lack of cushion, may indicate it’s time to replace the mattress or its top cover. Likewise, if you notice that the filling material has shifted or become compacted in certain areas, it may be time for a replacement. (For more information on buying mattresses, please see “A mattress buying guide” at right.)

A mattress buying guide

It’s a good idea to investigate mattress options before making a purchase. Dan McFarland, extension agricultural engineer in York, Pa., and Rick Stowell, agricultural engineer at Ohio State University, suggest looking for the following characteristics in a mattress:

  • Cushion
    Ask the manufacturer what type and amount of material is used to provide cushion. Perform the “knee test” — from a standing position, drop down on one knee onto the mattress — to determine if a mattress provides cushion.
  • Resilience
    When you push down on the mattress, it should spring back to its original form when released.
  • Water resistance
    Look for a covering material that does not absorb or hold moisture.
  • Durability
    + Ask the manufacturer how the mattress prevents the filling material from shifting.
    + Feel the cover of the mattress. If it’s coarse or abrasive, it could cause hair loss.
    + Ask about the warranty on the mattress or cover.