Water beds for cows — a moo-ving experience

By Joseph B. Frazier, The Associated Press
Saturday April 06, 2002

MOUNT ANGEL, Ore. — They say happy cows are more productive cows. Arie Jongeneel is hoping his herd of Holsteins, resplendent on their water beds, will bring forth a dairy deluge. 

Cow water beds redefine the concept “creature comfort.” Some farmers say their charges are so eager to bed down on them they will actually stand in line. 

“I grew up among cows in Holland,” said the 64-year-old Jongeneel. “When my cows are happy I’m happy. It’s just that way.” 

Eight or nine Holsteins lounged in a row on water beds at Jongeneel’s farm on a recent afternoon, looking thoughtful as they chewed their cuds. 

The water beds — rubber bladders filled with 18 gallons of water and covered with thick rubber mats — undulated when the 1,400-pound cows shifted their weight. 

The beds form to the shape of the cow and theoretically give the animals a more comfortable rest. 

Jongeneel, who began experimenting with 15 of the specially made water beds in January, said he is ordering 80 more for his 1,600 black-and-white cows on a dairy farm in Oregon’s lush Willamette Valley. 

“If it’s better for the cows it will increase milk production, there’s no doubt about that,” said Jongeneel, who has been in the business here 32 years. 

The Dutch- and British-made water beds have been in use in Europe for seven or eight years. Three years ago, the London Free Press reported about 15,000 cow water beds in use in Europe, mostly for dairy cattle. 

Cow water beds began appearing in the New York-Pennsylvania area and the Midwest about three years ago, and are catching on in the West. 

“The cows liked it right away,” said Jongeneel. “They laid right down and were comfortable.” 

The water beds — which go for about $150 each — are easier to clean than mucking out stalls, said Jongeneel. 

Those who distribute the water beds claim they reduce wear and tear on the cows’ joints and prevent swelling and burning of hocks. 

“In principle it is probably a sound piece of equipment to use on dairy cows,” said Mike Gamroth, a dairy cattle specialist at Oregon State University. “They lie down six to eight hours a day to digest their food. To keep the cows comfortable for a third of the day is important to milk production. 

“We have learned a lot in the past eight or 10 years about fine-tuning cow comfort,” he said. “Milk production is so high you have to do all the small things to push it any further.” 

Some producers have reported an increase in yield they attribute to the water beds, Gamroth said, but there are no hard numbers available. 

“It’s pretty difficult ... to actually measure changes in milk production from one style to another. But we see people buying them so there has got to be something to them.” 

Gamroth said some cattle still seem to prefer a deep bedding of straw, “but you have to (change) it almost every day.” 

At Fisher Farms in Lenox, in upstate New York, cows will wait in line to use the stalls that have water beds. 

“Sometimes they’ll stand there waiting for a cow to leave so they can get in on the water bed,” said Doug Ford, a sales representative for the farm, which also sells the beds. “When they come back from the milking parlor those are the stalls they fill first.” 

John Marshman, a dairy farmer in Chenango County, N.Y., has witnessed the same phenomenon. 

“The stalls with the water beds fill up faster than the other stalls,” said Marshman, who has purchased 150 of the beds and is so pleased with them he plans to buy another 100 for his 370 cows. 

“Cows are just like everybody else,” said Marshman. “When they figure out something is more comfortable, that’s where they will go.”