Most dairy producers consider rubber flooring for holding pens, lanes and alleys a too-pricey luxury.
But a spreadsheet developed by Brian Holmes, a University of Wisconsin ag engineer, suggests a second look. "For the few cases that I've run through the spreadsheet so far, adding rubber mats turns out to be a no-brainer,” he says. "It pays for itself easily when the benefits are taken into consideration.”
The benefits of rubber flooring: less lameness, better reproduction and possibly more milk per cow.
But there are pitfalls as well, Holmes says. For example, if your freestalls are uncomfortable, cows could opt to lie in alleys on the rubber mats. And that could spark a rise in somatic cell counts and mastitis.
In addition, if lameness or reproduction isn't a problem in your herd, adding rubber flooring probably won't be of much noticeable benefit. "Cows will stand more in the feed alley when rubber is laid down,” Holmes acknowledges. "But research shows they won't eat any more feed; they simply stand less in stalls.”
If you have to prioritize, put rubber flooring in places where cows do a lot of walking, turning and pivoting: in walk lanes to the parlor, the holding pen, the parlor and return lanes.
Holmes has not made the spreadsheet publicly available because it takes a bit of time to understand. But he is willing to work with dairy producers who want to run the numbers on their facilities.
"If you can tell me what the numbers are, the spreadsheet can evaluate if rubber flooring is cost-effective in your facility,” he says.
To do so, you'll need the area of rubber you want to install, the installation cost of the rubber per square foot and the rates of improvement you expect in lameness and reproduction in your herd. Other values you'll need: labor rates, savings in hoof treatment time, percentage of cows with locomotion scores of 1 to 5, value of improved days open and medication costs. When you have that information, you can contact Holmes at email@example.com.