Relaxing in udder comfort

Ohio dairy farm coddles cows with waterbeds

By CINDY LEISE The Chronicle-Telegram Published:

WELLINGTON -- If you want great milk, you need happy and healthy cows.

At Conrad's Dairy Farm, that means pampering their milk producers with waterbeds.

After 10 months of use, dairymen Richard and David Conrad gave the waterbeds a thumbs-up during a visit Thursday to the farm on Indian Hollow Road.

"You make them happy, they'll make you happy," explained Richard Conrad.

During the visit on Thursday, the curious cows crowded around visitors, gently nuzzling coats and clothing. Now and then, a cow would get up or down from the waterbeds, causing a telltale jiggle on a bed's surface.

When the waterbeds were installed in March, the cows were a little skittish because they weren't used to putting their hooves onto the thick rubber bladders that hold the water, according to the Conrads.

But the cows soon discovered that lying on the beds was pretty darn comfortable, the brothers said.

The brothers paid about $55,000 for Dual Chamber Cow Waterbeds for their 240 cows and another $15,000 or so for the concrete bases in which the waterbeds rest. On top of the waterbeds is a dusting of sawdust and lime for additional bedding comfort and cleanliness.

Richard Conrad thinks the waterbeds could pay for themselves in as little as three years because of an annual $6,000 savings in the cost of sawdust and a better price for their milk. The farmers said the quality of the cows' milk improved and the farm was able to lower its somatic cell count to about 100,000 cells per milliliter, compared with 150,000-200,000 cells per milliliter before the waterbeds were installed.

Somatic cells are white blood cells that increase in response to pathogenic bacteria. The lower the count, the better, and the more stable the milk products produced from the milk. The U.S. government requires a count of fewer than 750,000 cells per milliliter while the European standard is 400,000 cells per milliliter.

Using waterbeds for cows originated in Europe about 15 or 20 years ago and was brought to this country by Dean Throndsen of Wisconsin-based Advanced Comfort Technology Inc.

Throndsen and his wife, Audrey, patented the design of Dual Chamber Cow Waterbeds in 2003 and have sold about 500,000 of the devices in 18 countries including New Zealand, India and China. Throndsen said that getting up and down -- or lying for long periods of time -- can hurt the cow's front knees and rear hocks -- or ankles.

That's where the waterbeds come in, because they provide a cushion. Throndsen is proud of the two-chamber design that supports both the front and back of the animals, which can weigh 1,600 pounds or more.

"When she hits that pillow with her knees, it totally cushions them," Throndsen said.

The decision to put in waterbeds at the Conrad farm was a good one, according to Richard and David Conrad, the fourth generation of farmers at the property. Some people laugh, or even think someone is pulling their leg, when they hear the farm has installed waterbeds, David Conrad said.

"I think everybody had the same reaction you had when you first heard about it," he said.

However, he said they come around when he explains how the beds help eliminate sores and promote better health.

"Without the cows comfortable and content, they're not going to work for us and make us money," David Conrad said. "The people in the dairy business are serious about what we do -- we love our cows."

With fans and sprinklers to cool the cows in the summer, Richard Conrad said his mom jokes that she "wants to come back as one of my dairy cows, because they've got it made."

"There are a lot of people who can't say they've slept on a waterbed," he said.

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