Rest assured: Bedding options for robotic milking facilities

Robotic milking embraces the basics in herd management and milk production, but other essential components, like lifestyle, daily routines and housing facilities, can and do vary. One hot topic concerning housing facilities in Automatic Milking System (AMS) barns is bedding. Appropriate bedding systems should fulfill the requirements of lactating dairy cows milked by AMS in a sustainable way, considering these four pillars: Animal Welfare, Farm Profitability, Social Responsibility and Environment

In 2013, the University of Minnesota surveyed bedding systems of 52 robotic dairies in the Midwest. They found 42% were using mattresses, 27% sand, 13% waterbeds, 6% bedded packs and 12% others. 1

Let’s examine some of these bedding systems against the following variables:

Cow comfort: In terms of cushion, traction and support, with effects on overall performance but mainly cow flow and access to robots.

Locomotion: Lame cows won’t voluntarily visit the robot station. Healthy cows drive robot efficiency.

Milk quality and udder health: The only way to ensure a profitable herd and a quality product.

Impact on equipment: Wear and maintenance costs are important variables to evaluate for economic and planning purposes.

Cow flow: The goal is to maximize voluntary access to the robots and improve cow behavior.

Total Costs: A critical variable in any business.

Environment: AMS operations must be in compliance with local regulations.

Three categories of bedding systems:



Sand is considered the gold standard in terms of cow comfort, locomotion, and milk quality and udder health – both in conventional or robotic operations.

A survey performed by the University of Wisconsin of 176 herds found a 7 lbs. increase in milk per cow per day when compared to herds with mattresses. Also, sand bedded herds had lower somatic cell counts (SCC), lower prevalence of lameness, lower turnover rates and improved fresh cow health. 4 A University of Minnesota survey showed that sand bedded AMS dairies in the Midwest had a lameness prevalence (% locomotion score >3) of 22.5% comparable only to composted bedded packs or pasture. Severe hock lesion prevalence was only at 3.8%.1

DeLaval surveyed the udder health records of dairies with Voluntary Milking System (VMS™) and found sand-bedded facilities have a bulk tank SCC of 40,000 to 150,000.

Pay special attention to:

  • Wear on equipment as it will affect maintenance and running costs. Normally sand increases robot maintenance costs between 50% and 80%.


  • Ask your milking machine provider for the best robot configuration to deal with sand. Also, ask about the maintenance and running costs so that you can calculate the return on investment (ROI). Sand is all about theROI!

Straw, sawdust, kiln-dried shavings and other organic materials

Straw, sawdust, kiln-dried shavings and other organic materials have similar effects in terms of cow comfort, locomotion and cow flow with slight differences, especially when compared with sand.

This kind of organic bedding also has major advantages in terms of impact on equipment, and manure handling.

Pay special attention to:

  • Cow cleanliness is a real concern when using organic bedding. High bacteria growth is a problem due to the fast proliferation of pathogens that affect the mammary gland.
  • To properly maintain these stalls, labor and bedding expenses can become a big concern as well as potential cow flow disruptions.


  • Detailed and specific standard operating procedures (SOPs) are needed in order to ensure proper management.
  •  Ensure consistent hair removal from the udders, otherwise clinging organic manure will affect robot performance.

Recycled manure solids (RMS)

Recycled manure solids (RMS) deliver clear advantages in terms of cow comfort, locomotion, cow flow, total cost, and impact on equipment, in addition to availability and management.  

There are three popular ways to produce RMS:

  1. Anaerobic digested manure
  2. Separation of raw manure
  3. Mechanical drum composting 5

RMS can be used on top of mattresses with a 2 to 4 inch layer or as deep as 8 to 12 inches of material. With a top layer there is some difficulty in keeping it in place, and with deep beds there is a greater risk of increased coliform counts. A survey conducted by the University of Minnesota in 2012 found out of 38 farms using these kinds of systems, 50% used deep bedding, 39% on top of mattresses and 11% in mixed configurations. 5

Pay special attention to: 

  • Udder health as it can be compromised representing a potential risk for coliform outbreaks especially caused by Klebsiella. The probability increases when raw manure solids and hot humid climates collide. Bulk tank SCC is comparable to other kind of systems.5


  • Ask your AMS provider for previous experiences with RMS and what kind of settings and milking procedures they’ve used to help prevent an environmental risk.
  • A well designed vaccination program for coliform mastitis is required.
  • Monitor dry matter and temperature on a daily basis.
  • Detailed and specific SOPs are needed in order to ensure proper management.


Mattresses are the most popular bedding system in robotic milking operations around the world.

Their performance depends on proper management, mattress quality and the amount of organic bedding on top. This last point applies without exceptions. Great managers with correct strategies have achieved good levels of cow comfort, locomotion, milk quality and udder health, low impact on equipment, and low cow flow disruption, with very good options for bedding automation, driving to very successful operations worldwide.

Pay special attention to:

  • Cow comfort and locomotion can be a concern. Due to mattresses’ limitations on traction, cushion and support, cows could spend more time standing in stalls 7 with shorter lying bout times. 8  driving to higher congestion levels in the alleys. If a proper strategy isn’t employed, this can have a negative impact on cow flow, milkings per day, and of course, milk production.
  • Udder health. DeLaval surveyed VMS dairies in the U.S. and found facilities using mattresses with organic bedding on top had bulk tank SCC of 150,000 to 300,000.


  • Choose the best option in the market in terms of cushion, traction and support.
  • Always add organic bedding on top in order to balance cow comfort and facilitate surface cleanliness. Adding 1 to 4 inches of organic bedding on top will optimize cow comfort and udder health.
  • Detailed and specific SOPs are needed in order to ensure proper management.


CBPs offers clear benefits in terms of cow comfort, locomotion, low impact on equipment and low initial cost of investment.

It also provides ideal conditions for reproductive performance, as it facilitates heat signs and overall cow health. A study performed by the University of Kentucky showed how calving intervals decreased from 14.3 to 13.7 months when comparing the year before to the second year after the system was implemented. 9

Depending on the style of CBP, the cost could be significant or almost non-existent, it will depend in local conditions and design.

Pay special attention to:

  • Milk quality and udder health can be compromised as the prevalence of dirty cows is normally the highest compared to the other bedding systems. Again, as with any other organic bedding, it is very sensitive to management capabilities. Normally, AMS farms with well managed CBPs have a bulk tank SCC of 200,000 to 400,000. Of course, there are some exceptional farms with very good bulk tank SCC.
  • Depending on local conditions, bedding cost can be a big concern. Some AMS dairies in the Midwest have switched to other kinds of bedding due to extremely high costs.


  • Cow hygiene is a reflection of the compost itself the art of using CBPs is to know how to produce compost. It is crucial to monitor the following variables such as temperature, humidity and area per cow.
  • Avoid green or wet shavings as Klebesiella levels can increase dramatically and therefore the risk of coliform mastitis can be high.
  • A well designed vaccination program for coliform mastitis is required.
  • Detailed and specific SOPs are needed in order to ensure proper management.
  • Ask your AMS provider for previous experiences with CBPs. Also ask about the settings and milking procedures they’ve used to help prevent environmental risks.
  • Define a barn layout that facilitates handling of cows and fetching routines.

Keep it simple and manageable

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. This is all about you making the best decision for your own dairy, with the cows being top priority and the sustainability of your AMS operation in the horizon.


  1. Salfer J. A., Endres M.I. Kammel D.W., 2013. Housing management and animal welfare characteristics of farms using Automatic Milking Systems. Proceedings of the Precission Dairy Conference and Expo. 35-36
  2. Wenz J.R., Jensen S.M., Lombard J.E., Wagner B.A., Dinsmore R.P., 2007. Herd Management practices and their association with bulk tank somatic cell count on united satates dairy operations. J. Dairy Sci. 90:3652-3659
  3. Zdanowicz M., Shelford J.A., Tucker C.B., Weary D.M. Von Keyserlingk, 2004. Bacterial populations on teat ends of dairy cows housed in free stalls and bedded with either sand or sawdust. J. Dairy Sci. 87:1694-1701
  4. Dairyland initiative. University of Wisconsin, Madison 2014
  5. Husfeldt A.W., Endres M.I., Salfer J.A., Janni K.A., 2012. Management and characteristics of recycled manure solids used for bedding in Midwest freestalls dairy herds. J. Dairy Sci. 95: 2195 – 2203
  6. Lombard J.E., Tucker C.B., Von Keyserlingk M.A.G, Kopral C.A., Weary D.M., 2010. Associations between cow hygine, hock injuries, and free stalls usage on US dairy farms. J. Dairy Sci. 93:4668-4676
  7. Cook N.B. Cook, Bennett T.B., Nordlund K.V., 2004. Effect of free stall surface on daily activity patterns in dairy cows with relevance to lameness prevalence. J. Dairy Sci. 87: 2912-2922
  8. Van Gastelen S., Westerlaan B., Houwers D.J., Van Eeerdenburg F.J., 2011. A study on cow comfort and risk for lameness and mastitis in relation to different types of bedding materials. J. Dairy Sci. 94:4878-4888
  9. Black R.A., Taraba J.L., Day G.B., Damasceno F.A., Bewley J.M., 2013. Cospost beddedpack dairy barn management, performance and producer satisfaction. J. Dairy Sci. 96: 8060-8074
  10. Barberg A.E., Endres M.I., Salfer J.A., Reneau., 2007. Performance and welfare of dairy cows in an alternative housing system in Minnesota. J. Dairy Sci. 90:1575-1583
  11. Norring M., Manninen E., de Pasille A.M., Rushen J., Munksgaard L., Saloniemi H., 2008. Eeffects of sand and straw bedding on the lying behavior, cleanliness and hoof and hock injuries of dairy cows. J. Dairy Sci. 91:570-576
  12. Lobeck K.M, Endres M.I., Shane E.M., Godden S.M., Fetrow J., 2011. Animal welfare in cross-ventilated, compost-bedded pack, and naturally ventilated dairy barns in the upper Midwest. J. Dairy Sci. 94:5469-5479
  13. Endres  M.I., Barberg A.E. 2007. Behavior of dairy cows in an alternative bedded-pack housing system. J. Dairy Sci. 90:4192-4200

Has been published in Progressive Dairyman


Francisco Rodriguez

Francisco Rodriguez
8 articles

Dairy Management Advisor - AMS Automatic Milking Systems
DeLaval North America

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Every day millions of dairy animals are milked, fed and maintained by DeLaval solutions in more than 100 countries worldwide – and DeLaval meets with over 10 000 milk producers on their farms. 

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