Farmers should look locally to source alternative bedding materials this winter, says Phil Clarke of P and L Agriconsulting. “Find out what is available in your area to reduce bedding costs.”

It is well worth investing in good quality bedding, says Mr Clarke. “There is no point using poor quality straw. It may be cheap, but in the long run it will be twice as expensive in terms of problems.”

There are a number of alternative options available. “Shop around for cheap commodities in your area – companies producing a by-product can be an attractive option”

Ash

Ashbeddingmain“In Cheshire, lime ash is a good option for local producers at about £20/t for an ash paper mix.” However, this product will become less economic the further you move away from the source.

“At pH 8.5, ash is highly alkaline, meaning it is good for reducing mastitis and somatic cell counts.” The product is also highly absorbent allowing a lot of liquid to be absorbed without it getting wet.

“Ash can be severe on its own, so it is better mixed with paper to increase comfort.”

An iodine based teat dip with good emollient levels must be used when bedding on ash, he says. “When a chlorhexidine dip is used, ash will react with the chemical resulting in teat burn.

“The product can also be used for loose housing dry cows in the last three to four weeks to help reduce mastitis, but cows should not calve on ash as the high alkalinity is not suitable.”

Plasterboard

Gypsum-impregnated plasterboard paper can be a good option if you are located near a recycling centre, says Mr Ohnstad.

“A recent study showed cows housed on plasterboard paper had similar or reduced somatic cell counts compared with cows housed on straw.”

Plasterboard paper dries quickly and, because Gypsum is an alkaline product, it acts as a natural disinfectant so beds do not need liming.

Research into using complete recycled plasterboard as animal bedding showed reduced microbial content in milk compared with straw and good cow comfort, says Rob Bolton from 4recycling.

“The gypsum content of plasterboard also adds to the nutrient value of slurry.”

 

Case study: Plasterboard

High cell counts and rising straw costs forced Henry Thompson of T W Thompson and Sons to buy in plasterboard for use on his 300 cow dairy unit at Church Farm, Kilburn.

“We use a combination of straw and plasterboard in our cubicle unit – this has cut our straw use considerably.” Plasterboard is applied once a week and beds are topped up with straw twice a day.

Using plasterboard has been part of a bigger drive to tackle cell counts. “It is still early days, but with the drying effect of the plasterboard we hope cell counts will begin to come down,” he says.

Sand

Sandbedthumb.jpg

Sand is the gold standard for cow comfort and mastitis, but in terms of “farmer sanity”, sand must be considered carefully, says Ian Ohnstad, dairy husbandry consultant for The Dairy Group.

“It is essential to look at your slurry handling system before considering sand.”

Cubicles can be converted to sand by fixing a retainer to the back of the beds and filling with three to four inches of sand. “In the short-term, sand can be put over mats, but ideally mats should be removed.”

But, when considering temporarily converting to sand cubicles in response to straw shortage, farmers should consider the change carefully. “You will use a minimum of 2t sand a bed over the winter – as a temporary measure you may not wish to invest in a dispenser, but this is a lot of sand to shift by hand.”

Paper products

Dried paper crumbles are five times more absorbent than straw, says Mr Bolton.

“Paper crumble can be mixed 50:50 with chopped straw or shavings or used as a bedding replacer,” he says.

“As a result, they bring potential savings by reducing the amount of straw or shavings used – obviously this will depend on location in the country.”

Envirobed is made from paper sludge from recycling mills and dried to 95% dry matter, says Liz Russell, managing director for Envirosystems..

“Because the material is dried to such an extent, it enhances the absorbent quality of the paper, acting like blotting paper.

“A lot of farmers have reported improved cell counts and faster milking because cows are cleaner.” And because the product is pH7-7.4, beds do not need to be limed.

Case study: Deep Bed Envirobed

Dairy farmer, Rod Kerr of Justinlees, Dumfries, moved to deep bedding cubicles with Envirobed eight years ago and has never looked back.

“Originally cows were loose housed on straw courts. However, after deciding to increase cow numbers, we realised we would have to invest in cubicles.”

Mats and mattresses appeared an expensive option, so Mr Kerr decided to give deep bedded Envirobed a go. “We were worried the cows would not lie in the cubicles following the move from loose housing, but they took to it well – the bedding is comfortable and cows never slip.”

And there has been a marked improvement in mastitis levels. “Because the beds are so dry, cows are spotless and we have seen a significant drop in cell counts and mastitis.”

Bark wood

Using bark wood in loose housing can cut straw use by a third, says Mr Clarke. “Bark can be put under straw in dry cow yards to create an absorbent layer – straw will last longer and you will use less of it.”

Bark corrals could also be an option for keeping youngstock, dry cows or low yielders outside to reduce costs.