In order to walk from the milking parlor to the farthest free-stalls at Ahlem Farms, cows must take approximately 3,500 steps, or 875 per hoof. No wonder they walk single-file down a 4-foot-wide rubber mat rather than straying off onto the uncovered, concrete portion of the lane.

Since the dairy installed the rubber mats on top of the concrete, the number of foot problems has declined dramatically. The farm had been paying a hoof trimmer $1,000 a week prior to installing the mats, but has cut that figure to $400 a week. "I prefer to spend the money on these rubber mats instead of a hoof trimmer," says Joe Machado, herd manager of the 1,820-cow dairy in Hilmar, Calif.

Machado, who places a premium on cow comfort, likes the rubber mats much better than conveyor belting as an alternative to concrete.

The mats are thicker than most conveyor belting, and provide more cushion and shock absorption under the cows' feet. They are less slippery than conveyor belting. And, the mats cost about the same as belting, so the producer gets a softer, less slippery surface for virtually the same money.

These rubber mats - sold commercially as Animat - provide a better combination of cow comfort and economics than conveyor belting.

A perception exists that rubber mats are significantly more expensive than conveyor belting.

Yet, mats are cost-competitive, and, in some cases, cost less money than belting, says Gary Folkema, an authorized Animat dealer in Ingersoll, Ontario, Canada.

Cost of Animats can vary, based on geographic location and volume of purchase. The average price of Folkema's projects ranges from $2.55 to $2.65 per square foot, which includes installation. Conveyor belting often runs around $2.50 per square foot (installed).

Another possible objection to rubber mats is that they won't hold up to heavy cow traffic or machine traffic. One dairy manager in Florida wonders what would happen if a skid-steer were to make a sharp turn on the mats, possibly damaging them.

Folkema acknowledges this concern. Certainly, it would not be prudent to make sharp turns on the mats with a skid-steer. Some common sense should apply, he adds. But, generally speaking, the Animat will resist wear-and-tear. It is installed by factory-trained crews, using a "shift-lock anchoring system" that keeps the mats firmly in place.

Ultimate surface
While everyone can agree that cows prefer some sort of cushioned surface - even conveyor belting - over concrete, no one has done a definitive research study on which surface is best.

Researchers at Cornell University have started such a project, but their results won't be reported until next year, says Curt Gooch, agricultural engineer at Cornell.

For now, the question must be addressed through producer testimonials - and common sense.

From what Neil Michael, veterinarian and director of technical services at ABS Global in DeForest, Wis., has seen of the Animat surfaces, he says they "have worked great."

"Obviously, they need to be fastened down correctly," Michael adds. "But, I've never seen a time that I put those in that I didn't like them for trafficking cows."

He is not as positive about conveyor belting. Certainly, people need to be careful when buying conveyor belting, he says, because certain types of belting are harder than others. It just depends on the roll, he says. Often, hardness will depend on the age of the belting and the type of use that it was subjected to prior to being purchased by a dairy. Much of the conveyor belting used by dairies comes from the commercial mining industry. Coal and other substances can impart different properties to the belting, altering its hardness.

Rubber better than concrete
North Florida Holsteins, in Bell, Fla., embarked on an experiment a few years ago to determine which rubber flooring surface to use in a hospital free-stall barn under construction.

A former employee, Lisa Urbanek, ran the tests. She looked at several different types of solid, molded rubber mats. They actually laid one of them down - it was another rubber mat besides Animat - and the cows seemed to love it. But, the mat was so thick - 3 inches - that the employees wondered how easy installation would be, and whether the rubber might eventually tear free from the nailheads. The manufacturer never really addressed their concerns, Urbanek says.

Various rubber samples were strewn about the back office of North Florida Holsteins so the employees could see them and make comments. Everyone wanted comfort and durability. But, for some reason, they couldn't reach a consensus.

Eventually, the dairy decided to go with conveyor belting. They knew that belting would be durable and, therefore, offer a long-term solution.

Even through the belting gets wet, slipperiness does not seem to be a problem at North Florida Holsteins. "We have less cows slip on the belting than we do on concrete," says one of the managers, Bill Swift. "I can't remember the last time I saw a down cow in any of these barns with the belting in it."

But, it should be noted that North Florida Holsteins general manager at the time those experiments were conducted, Rick Silvia, is now a believer in Animat over conveyor belting. He is planning to install Animat at the 1,000-cow dairy that he now manages in northern Virginia.

"Rubber belting is very hard, and you have to groove it, and it can get slippery," Silvia says. "Animat, to me, has just the right toughness. It is anti-slip. We think that when all is said and done, it's the best surface for the cows."

Proof is in cow performance
Animat seems to be working well for Siemers Holsteins in Cleveland, Wis., since the farm began installing it last fall.

The dairy's hoof trimmer, Tim Perry, has seen the number of sole ulcers drop by nearly half since the dairy installed Animat. "I've noticed less laminitis," he says, "and the cows are flexing better." In other words, they seem to be moving in a more fluid manner now that they are walking on mats than previously when they were walking on concrete. The number of lame cows has gone down considerably.

Siemers had Animat installed in the free-stall alleyways, as well as the holding area adjacent to the milking parlor. The parlor is the only area that the cows come in contact with which doesn't have an Animat surface.

"So far, so good. I think it's a little early to tell," Siemers says. He figures that Animat will pay for itself in three years, assuming that the average cow will stay in the herd one or two months longer than before the mats were installed. And, if he can pay for Animat in three years, he gets several years "free," since Animat carries a 10-year warranty.

"I did a lot of research on (rubber surfaces), and I couldn't find anything I liked as well," he adds.