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Virginia Cooperative Extension - Knowledge for the CommonWealth

Availability of Winter Bedding Material

Dairy Pipeline: November 2007

John Welsh, Extension Agent
Rockingham County
(540) 564-3080;

A positive note to our dry weather is that dairymen have been able to use less bedding material this summer. The dry conditions that have persisted throughout the year and into this fall are nearly ideal in terms of managing the cow’s environment. In particular, those dairymen with bedded pack barns have been seeing good pack conditions as they have dried down to the point of choking the tractor driver as they manage the pack daily. Perhaps it’s just wishful thinking, but we are heading into the period of the year when we normally begin to see more regular moisture. And more moisture means more bedding. Recently, we have seen a trend of less bedding available and at a higher cost. The bedding dilemma is a result of several factors. Lumber prices have followed the trend in the housing markets, with a peak around $450/Kbd ft in 2004. While the housing sector has slowed, interest in securing sources for lumber products has not. Consequently, dairymen are seeing their local sources for dry sawdust being diverted to a more lucrative market in the wood products industry.

Ultimately the role of any bedding is to provide a clean, comfortable place for cows to lay down. Sawdust was a good choice in that initially, it is dry and provides little nutrients, depriving mastitis causing bacteria of the media they need for growth. But with the addition of a little MUD (manure, urine and dirt), bacterial populations quickly soar in the absence of good bedding management, replacement or treatment. Furthermore, while sawdust has the ability to absorb 2 ½ times it’s weight in moisture, it cannot do so without becoming a good media for bacterial growth.

In freestall operations, dairymen should consider the expense, stall retention, absorption and nutrient content of alternative bedding types. Common alternatives to dried sawdust would include peanut hulls, shavings, green sawdust, sand and mattresses. Shavings and hulls are similar to sawdust in that they are dry but tend to require more bedding as they are poorly retained in most free stalls due to their bulky nature. Green dust is typically more economical but has less capacity to absorb moisture and can come with a healthy bacterial load, particularly klebsiella. Frequent applications of lime to stalls bedded with green dust can potentially help mitigate some of the increased risk of high bedding cultures. Mattress installation is a more long term solution. Daily bedding costs will be lower, but not eliminated, and life of the mattress will ultimately play into the economic decision. Sand is a good, inorganic choice that supports little bacterial growth. Retention in stalls varies with stall design and it is well reported to be abrasive to equipment and hard to get out of manure pits.

In bedded pack operations, the options are shavings, peanut hulls, green dust, fodder, straw and potentially sand. If you overlook their cost, shavings and hulls work well in pack barns. Their absorption rates are lower than sawdust but their increased particle size tends to bulk up the pack, helping it aerate and compost better. Green dust will have even lower absorption rates and there is the added risk of much higher counts in bedding cultures. Again, lime applications might help mitigate the problem. Corn fodder and straw can be used in pack barns although they cease to be a composting unit at that time and with frequent applications they can provide a relatively clean bedding area. Sand is an option, although I have not been able to locate anyone that actually uses it in a pack barn. It is inorganic, could be tilled with the same equipment and it is considered excellent for cow comfort. On the down side—what to do with it once it reaches a saturation point of manure solids?

A survey of bedding suppliers in the Shenandoah Valley had trailer loads of shavings at $1700, peanut hulls at $1100, green dust at $630, and sand at $460. Corn fodder has been bringing $15 - $19 per large round bale while straw is currently bringing $26 - $32 in large squares.

Ultimately, bedding options come down to the economics, local availability and potential risk to udder health. For additional advice on the pros and cons of different bedding types and treatments please contact your local dairy extension agent.


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