Cows rest in sand-bedded tie stalls at the Meyers’ dairy farm near Grove City, Minnesota. The Meyers began using sand in 2006 to improve cow comfort without making major changes to the barn’s structure.
Cows rest in sand-bedded tie stalls at the Meyers’ dairy farm near Grove City, Minnesota. The Meyers began using sand in 2006 to improve cow comfort without making major changes to the barn’s structure. PHOTO BY JENNIFER COYNE

    GROVE CITY, Minn. – The Meyer family was tired of managing a herd of dairy cattle with swollen hocks, higher incidences of mastitis and walking on a slick barn floor, so they turned to sand bedding as a solution.
    “It’s worked out great,” Greg said. “We have no swollen legs, there’s grit on the floor so there’s no slipping and sliding, and the cows are calmer and healthier.”

    Greg and his wife, Patti, and son, Nate, milk 85 cows in a tiestall barn on their farm in Meeker County near Grove City.
    In 2006, the Meyers began converting the original barn’s mattress stalls to sand bedding and adding an additional row of stalls to the two-row building. Last fall, the family completed construction on an outside fourth row as they decided to increase their herd to its present-day size to accommodate Nate’s full-time return to the farm.
    The two alleyways of the barn are scraped twice a day before milkings.
    Each alleyway contains no gutters and is wide enough for a skidloader to drive through. Large doors at the south end of the barn open up to the manure pit where the sand and waste is stored.
    “I don’t miss the barn cleaner, but now we’re talking hauling out about four loads of manure every other day,” Greg said.
    While the Meyers clean the barn twice a day, they bed the stalls every four days using a side shooter.   
    It was a relatively easy decision for the Meyers to begin using sand for bedding despite their housing setup.
    “This was a typical two-story tiestall barn with gutters,” Greg said. “When we bought this place in 1994, people were just starting to use sand, and we didn’t want to wreck our barn cleaner.”
    The Meyers spoke with their long-time nutritionist about a Wisconsin farm that was similar in setup and using sand bedding.
    They began by tearing out mattresses in the original tiestall barn, which allowed for 3 inches of sand to lay atop the cement base of the stalls. Then, the Meyers installed PVC pipe at the back end of the stalls to hold the bedding in.
    In the newer stalls, measuring 73 inches by 50 inches, bedding is 1 foot deep above a clay base. Sand is retained in the stalls by a cement barrier.
    “The deeper bedded stalls work better,” Nate said. “But overall, we’ve seen an improvement in cow health and comfort.”
    Bigger cows in the herd are housed in the larger stalls with more bedding available. The Meyers use the older stalls for smaller framed cows, those that like to dig in the stalls and a few first-calf heifers.
    The Meyers saw an uptick in milk production when they began using a different bedding. They also noticed a decrease in somatic cell count and cleaner cows.  
    “We’ve tried all sorts of bedding,” Patti said. “Corn stalks, straw, sunflower hulls, sawdust … sand is by far the best choice.”
    The Meyers did the majority of the work for removing the mattresses of the old stalls and building the two new rows. They also added supplemental lighting to the newer portion of the barn, and those stalls are positioned for milking to be done from behind, as if working in a parlor.
    “We don’t have to go into the stalls to milk them,” Greg said. “The cows stand about 15 inches higher than us compared to 9 inches in the older part of the barn, so that makes milking more manageable.”
    The Meyers use eight milking units. They begin in the new portion of the barn for every shift and work their way through the herd.
    “It’s pretty labor intensive for one person to milk,” said Greg who milks with Nate. “I wish we could milk all the cows from behind.”
    Decisions the Meyers made regarding cow comfort have not come without challenges.
    “The biggest headache is during the winter, from January to February, because the sand freezes,” Greg said. “And if we get a thunderstorm in early December, the sand is like concrete.”
    The washed sand bedding is stored on an outdoor pile. In the wintertime, the Meyers store a skidloader bucket of sand inside the barn to thaw overnight before bedding the next day.
    “Each bucket can bed about 12 cows, so it’s a juggling act to get the whole herd bedded,” Nate said.
    The family has also tried sourcing sand that was less expensive, but the quality was not adequate, Greg said.
    “And, when you’re bedding with sand, you’re also dealing with liquid manure,” he said. “So you have to be aware of that when you’re traveling on the road to get it spread.”
    For more than a decade, the Meyers have managed sand bedding and continued to make improvements for the vitality of their herd, and all without making extreme changes to the farm’s original facilities.
    The Meyers continue to see the benefits of every decision.
    “Everything we’ve done has given us happier, healthier cows,” Patti said.
    Greg agreed.
    “It feels really good when you look down the barn and the cows are laying down and you can tell they’re comfortable,” he said. “We’ve accomplished a lot with the choices we’ve made.”