If your cows are spending any time in indoor shelters, bedding is an important consideration for the benefit of your milk yields. Cows spend on average 10 – 12 hours a day lying down, so comfort is key to happy, milk-producing heifers.
To produce high yields of milk dairy cows need optimal conditions for lying down. Blood circulation through the udder increases by up to 30%, so lying down is an important part of the milk production cycle. Therefore, it’s necessary to let your cows get as much rest as they need in the most comfortable space possible.
Dairy cows will spend less time lying down if the space is not comfortable, thereby affecting the quality of their milk production. Fortunately, we examined the various factors and outlined different bedding options and their benefits, so you can make a careful and informed decision when deciding on the bedding for your cows.
The Different Types of Cow Bedding
Sawdust can be an effective option for cow bedding as long as it’s properly screened and dried. Sawdust is also one ingredient that can be used (in conjunction with other materials) in composting barn bedding packs. Compared to sand, an advantage of sawdust is that it can be broken down by microorganisms and eventually makes for great compost.
Similar to sawdust, wood chip can make for good cow bedding because it is comfortable and biodegrades. It is generally used on the surface with another component, such as sawdust, underneath. It can be more expensive and less absorbent than sawdust, so the two make a good combination.
Straw can be a very comfortable bedding for cows, though it’s essential to change the bedding frequently. Heavily soiled straw can promote the growth of pathogens, though, similar to sawdust, adding lime can help prevent this. Using small particle-size straw is ideal for animal comfort level and reduces breakdown time.
Paper is a relatively inexpensive and readily available bedding option, especially if you’re close to a paper mill. If you use recycled paper, such as stripped newspaper, it has the added benefit of being sustainable. If you choose to use paper, then try to avoid using glossy paper or any with high ink residue. Additionally, you can mix the paper with other bedding options such as sand, sawdust, or straw for improved draining and comfort.
In open barns, compost is a sustainable, organic, soft, and warm bedding option. This bedding option does require twice-daily aeration during milking, and is mixed with sawdust or wood shavings as needed. Proper ventilation is also essential due to the manure content and it is replaced completely once or twice per year. When the compost pack reaches 1.2 metres it can be removed from the barn and used as fertilizer.
Mattresses with waterproof exteriors can provide excellent comfort and support for cows and are mainly used in tie stalls or freestall barns. Some mattresses have polyurethane foam or even water filling making them easy to clean, long-lasting, and cost-effective. When using mattresses, organic bedding will most likely be used as well. Wood shavings, sawdust, or paper are all forms of organic beddings that can be placed on top of the mattress.
A plant option relatively new to New Zealand’s dairy farms, miscanthus is more absorbent than sawdust or wood shavings. This option is easy to grow and maintain, with little to no pest attacks or weed growth. Just keep in mind it may use more water than beddings such as straw or sawdust.
What is the Best Bedding Options for Dairy Cows
In traditional barns the best bedding options for dairy cows will depend upon the type of barn or farm management system you use, your local climate, what your budget is, and what resources you have available to you. Take into account how much labour will be required to change and clean the bedding and whether or not it will drain well. If you invest in a composting barn you only need to clean out the barn once a year!
Our composting barns provide the best bedding for dairy cows, they are soft, sustainable and increase lying time. The bedding is composed of thick layered organic materials, usually sawdust or wood chips, though various other organic substrates can be used so long as they decay appropriately.
The thick layers of bedding have abundant bacteria that break down the combination of the cow’s excrement and urine and organic materials to produce a nutrient-rich and sustainable fertiliser. To compost in the most effective manner materials used for composting barn bedding should have a carbon nitrogen ratio of 30 to 1, so 30 parts carbon and 1 part nitrogen. There are a number of carbon sources you can use but sawdust is by far the best option. It has an extremely high carbon to nitrogen ratio but is also very fine, it works effectively in the composting systems to enhance biological activity.
Sawdust and wood shavings are the most commonly used bedding options for dairy cows as they are widely available and fairly inexpensive up front. Cows have been observed to have more lying time with deep-bedded sawdust compared to other options, which is good because they’re high in absorbency, it composts well, and have been known to prevent lameness in heifers.
If you implement other bedding options such as mattresses or paper because of their cleanliness or accessibility, a layer of sawdust can still be used on top to entice the animals and maximise lying time.
Desirable Characteristics Of Dairy Cow Bedding
It’s important to know what to consider when choosing your type of bedding for your dairy cows. Your bedding needs to be:
- Stable to walk on
- Preventive of pathogen growth
- Cost and labour efficient
Why is Cow Bedding Important?
Cow bedding is a crucial element in dairy farming. Dairy cattle spend a lot of time lying down and the more they do so, the higher quantity of milk they produce. A comfy heifer is a happy heifer and happy heifers produce more milk! Not only should your cow bedding offer sufficient support and keep your cattle comfortable to maximise lying time, but it also needs to stay dry to help prevent diseases and provide sure footing to minimise the risk of injuries.
Concrete surfaces are common in most modern dairy farming systems, but standing on concrete is an important risk factor in the development of hoof lesions and lameness, as the concrete causes unnecessary stress on cows’ feet and legs. Lameness is one of the biggest reasons cows are culled which leads to economic losses and reduced milk yield. By providing comfortable and healthy bedding for your cows with the use of composting barns, you can optimise rest time and help reduce the incidence of lameness.
Does Barn Design Affect Bedding Options?
There are different options for dairy cows barns and the bedding you use will have to work in symbiosis with the style of barn and farming systems you use.
Open Style Barns
One option is an open style barn such as our composting barns, where your cows have freedom of movement and lie down wherever they choose. With the composting barn the thick layers of bedding have abundant bacteria that break down the combination of the cow’s excrement and urine and organic materials to produce a nutrient-rich and sustainable fertiliser. Having an open-air structure allows for optimal ventilation and moisture management, while also regulating the temperature of the ground and the ambient air.
The bedding in composting barns are laid throughout the area where the cows are, meaning they aren’t spending time standing around on concrete as well as lying wherever they please. This helps prevent lameness and other injuries that may occur in traditional style barns.
Tie Stall Barns
Another possibility is individual stalls, such as a tie-stall barn where the cows are kept in their stall while food and water are brought to them.
Still another option is free-stall barns where cows can move around with accessible feeding stations. The pros and cons of different beddings will depend on your barn design. What’s important is that the bedding is comfortable for the cows, pathogen-free, and easily manageable, whatever barn design you implement.