Sustainable Bedding Production
Up on the Farm
May 27, 2009
Keeping dairy cows comfortable is important to help them reach their genetic potential. Dairy producers pay lots of attention to “cow comfort” for this reason. Bedding is what cows lay down on in their stalls while they chew their cud, rest and make milk. The type of bedding farms use has changed tremendously over the last 30 years due to the need for better comfort and because the economics of bedding types has changed.
Bedding provides several benefits and each type has its advantages and disadvantages. A well bedded barn keeps cows dry and clean, reducing the amount of infectious environmental bacteria. Bedding also provides a cushion to keep a cow’s massive weight off of the hard surface below them. In fact, there is basic evaluation of a cow’s bed called a “knee test” where one puts his or her knee on the bed and if any hardness is felt, the bedding is insufficient.
Traditionally, straw was the bedding material used by dairymen. An inch or two in stalls helped keep them clean and dry, but these stalls rarely passed the knee test. As freestall barns evolved, bedding with straw became impractical. Sawdust became available for little or nothing since sawmills in the Northeast treated it as a valueless by-product of lumber production. It was easy to handle, absorbent and provided a deep, soft bed. Sawdust works well with most manure handling systems, but it does provide a good medium for bacteria growth.
Cow mattresses also became popular. Some mattresses are just thick rubber mats while others are made of various materials stuffed with recycled rubber tires. Some are even waterbeds. It took a number of years of technological improvements to keep the stuffing from shifting around and the coverings to be less abrasive. Mattresses do well on the knee test, but fall short in keeping cows clean and dry. Many farms use a combination of mattresses and sawdust to keep cows comfortable and healthy.
Not long ago, some farms began experimenting with sand as a bedding material. Cows love it because it passes the knee test with flying colors. It also does not support the growth of bacteria. Sand spilled into laneways provides sure footing on otherwise slippery floors. Unfortunately, sand is heavy, expensive to buy and move, and is very abrasive to equipment like scrapers and pumps.
In the past few years, the economics of bedding have changed dramatically. Sawdust is no longer a worthless by-product and producers cannot compete against the price that wood stove pellet manufacturers are willing to pay for it. With high fuel prices and much higher costs for equipment replacement parts, sand has also become less attractive from an economic point of view.
Ever resourceful, dairy producers have developed some very creative alternatives to bedding cows, but they are capital intensive. For sand, new technology is available for separating the sand from the manure and recycling it back into the stalls. This requires a lot of pumps, water tanks and concrete slabs but is being used effectively in a system called a “sand lane.”
The second new technology involves separating manure solids and liquids after they are scraped from the barn. The solids are then heated through a natural composting process and recycled as a sawdust replacement. What could be more sustainable than getting cows to produce their own bedding!
Bruce Dehm is an agricultural economist at Dehm Associates, LLC and Chairman of the Genesee Valley Farm Discovery Center in Groveland. Visit www.FarmDiscoveryCenter.org for more information. Email him at bdehm@DehmAssociates.com