Providing confident, non-skid footing for dairy cattle is vital to their health, performance, and well-being. Cows require a good footing to comfortably move around the housing area, especially in areas where they change direction, express estrus, as well as, to and from the milking center.
No matter how well alley surfaces are prepared initially they will most likely need resurfacing periodically to minimize slipping, falling, and injury. Manure removal from alleys multiple times per day using vehicle, or automatic, scrapers can wear grooved floor surfaces over time, making it smooth and slippery. Even flushing alleys clean can take a toll. Sand bedding escaping stalls can improve traction in alleys but also adds grit that can escalate wear. Even the best cattle flooring installations need refurbishing with time. Every six to eight years is typical, but in some cases, improvements are necessary in the first year of operation.
Fortunately, there are methods available to recondition smooth, slippery cow alleys to again provide a sure footing. These include adding grooves, ‘milling’ the surface, covering areas with a ‘rubber like’ material, and concrete replacement.
Grooving is usually the preferred method for creating and improving a floor surface for cows. Grooves help to drain moisture away from the surface and provide better ‘grip’. Grooving patterns can be formed, stamped, or sawn into alleys during or after alleys are formed. For restoration sawn grooves are preferred as they can be added quickly and with control, producing a ‘clean’ groove edge for improved traction. Recommended groove size is typically 1/2” wide by 1/2” deep and spaced 4” on center, creating a 3-1/2” wide tread, or hoof contact surface. A parallel grooving pattern runs along alley length. Grooves for a two-direction, or diamond, grooving pattern run at opposing angles to each other along the alley length. The additional grooves and geometry of this pattern offers cows better traction in more directions than parallel grooves.
Recently some grooving companies offer groove widths from 3/4” to 1” wide to improve traction and permit easier cleaning. One-half inch grooves are suitable for sand bedding freestall shelters, but systems using organic bedding may benefit from 3/4” wide grooves since they may clean better improving traction. Shelter layouts placing special cow pens using organic bedding upstream from sand bedded freestall pens can benefit from wider grooves since the organic bedding material will find its way into the freestall alleys. When pondering grooves wider than 3/4”, consider increasing groove spacing slightly to provide ample tread width for support, and reduce groove depth a bit to minimize chance of injury as a hoof claw enters a groove.
In cow alleys with an existing parallel groove pattern, sawn grooves placed at an angle to the existing grooves across the alley width, creates a two-direction pattern, with proven good results. Existing alleys with two-direction sawn grooves can often be ‘refreshed’ using a machine like the one used to initially create them. There is also the opportunity to increase groove width to 3/4”, while still leaving ample tread size for hoof support.
Milling can be helpful in leveling rough, uneven concrete creating a suitable surface to add grooves. It can also be used to recondition a smooth, polished tread surface of grooved alleys exposing a ‘textured’ surface that can provide relatively good traction and support.
This process usually only removes a thin layer (~ 1/8”) of the surface, commonly leaving a pattern that looks like corduroy. Producers notice improved footing immediately after application but indicate the process typically needs to be repeated every three years or so due to wear from daily scrapings. Responding to this some companies have added ‘wear bars’ (narrow strips at existing concrete level) every so often across the alley width to reduce scraper contact with the textured surface.
‘Scabbling’ uses a machine that incorporates ‘hammers’ to roughen the surface. These machines are often used to bust up the top layer of existing concrete to create more surface area for a new layer of concrete to bond to. For cattle applications, some hammers are removed to create alternating strips of textured and smooth surfaces approximately 1-1/2” to 3” wide with rough edges. This process creates an uneven surface compared to grooving or milling. Therefore, the ‘hammered’ strip should be no deeper than 1/4” to reduce the chance of injury. One observed installation consisted of alternating 1-1/2” strips with hammered strips a little more than 1/2” deep producing a surface very difficult for cows walk on, resulting in significant lameness issues. Covering the alleys with rubber mats proved to be a solution for that situation.
Using a resilient ‘rubber like’ material to cover concrete alleys is another way to improve footing, but it comes with some challenges too. Materials providing the best cushion and traction seem more susceptible to damage from vehicle traffic. Material expansion and contraction with temperature changes can lift sections at the seams making them vulnerable to scraper damages. Carefully following the manufacturers installation and anchoring instructions and limiting skid-steer turning will improve longevity.
More durable materials hold up better to vehicle traffic and minimize material movement but offer less cushion, and some can be quite slippery when wet. Realizing this some suppliers add groove patterns to the material to improve traction. Again, follow the suppliers recommended installation instructions.
Slotted floors (slats) don’t see as much scraping activity as solid floors, but over time can wear smooth as well. Both grooving and milling have been used to improve the footing on slotted floors. When considering either option contact the manufacturer for recommendations, so the flooring strength and integrity remains intact. In most cases milling direction should be parallel to the ‘long’ opening of the slot to minimize damage to the slot opening top edges.
Resilient floor options are also available for slotted floors. Some use mechanical fasteners as anchors, whole others employ a rubber ‘wedge’ forced into a portion of the slotted opening. Careful measurement and good communication with the supplier are recommended successful application.
Occasionally cow alleys need to be replaced since they are cracked, broken, or have worn too thin and lost strength. For replacement select a qualified concrete contractor to do the new alley(s). Make sure the new concrete is placed on a stable base layer. Use an air entrained concrete mixture with a minimum of strength of 3,500 pounds per square inch (psi) and adequate reinforcement. A nominal 4” thickness is adequate for most cow and vehicle traffic, but if truck or trailer loads of sand bedding will pass over them use a minimum thickness of 6”. Alleys should be level across the width to reduce puddling and sloped 1 to 2 percent along the length to drain toward the manure collection opening. If grooves are to be formed soon after being poured make sure the person(s) placing them is capable. Formed grooves are ‘time sensitive’ and since concrete can vary with each load, day, and time of day the individual using the grooving device must understand these variables and adjust to create a quality job. As mentioned earlier, adding sawn grooves after the concrete has fully cured may allow more control over installation and provide better quality grooves. Of course, concrete must be fully cured, all exposed aggregate and concrete protrusions ground down, and debris removed before allowing cattle to enter the area.
Offering confident, non-skid footing for cattle is one of the basic elements required in any dairy housing system. If a complete resurfacing can’t be justified at the moment, focus on areas where cattle may be more vulnerable to slipping such as, areas where cattle change direction, traffic lanes across feed delivery alleys, crossovers between alleys without a non-skid surface, and lanes with a slope.
Reconditioning flooring surfaces cattle use may seem like and daunting and expensive task. However, preventing the loss of even one cow due to injury resulting from a fall may easily justify the time and cost necessary to get it done.