Straw is still the most
popular form of horse
bedding, but with more and
more horses suffering
from allergies, many
owners are having to
switch to the low dust
Tamara Farrant takes
a look at other materials
While the price of using straw for bedding is about £1.50/horse/week, alternatives are up to £11/week, overtaking shoeing as the single most significant outlay on a home-kept horse.
A vast number of manufacturers have seen the opportunity in the horse bedding market – worth an estimated £80m/year.
Most popular in the alternative bedding market is shavings. There are many grades available, and some have the disadvantage that they contain sawdust. The absorbency varies between manufacturers – depending on the level of drying – but is typically three times that of straw.
While shavings look attractive they always cause disposal problems because of their slow breakdown. Some people manage to have the muck heaps gently smouldering – but this is hard to control and a spark from the muck heap has been the cause of some stable fires.
* Shavings needed
A stabled horse will typically need one-and-a-half to two bags of shavings a week, which makes shavings one of the most expensive options at £7-11/week.
One of the most successful competitors to shavings to emerge over recent years is hemp. Although its price per bag £5.95-£6.95 is more expensive than most shavings at £4-£5/bag, half as much is needed because it is twice as absorbent. It does entail an extra process – sprinkling fresh material with water to gain maximum absorbency.
The disadvantage to these small chop beddings is that horses that pace round their box will soon work in all the droppings – leaving a brown mess that is difficult to manage. With tidy horses they are extremely quick to skip out, and the wet is taken out once a week.
Hemp for horse bedding comes from the woody core of the plant – chopped and dust extracted. UK based Hemcore has had limited supplies in the past, but with more demand for the outer part of the plant – for car door panels – much larger quantities will be available next year. Its direct competitor is Aubiose, which was the first company to establish the hemp horse bedding market in the UK.
Another alternative crop, flax, is also highly absorbent. Again a French product, in this case Equilin opened up the horse market. Now UK processors are under way, treating the British flax crop, retailing it at about £6/a bag.
Provided consistent quality supplies can be maintained flax is one of the most economical anti-allergy alternatives. It is marginally more absorbent than hemp and does not need to be damped down when put down. However, the overall feel is of "silk sheets" as opposed to "a cushion". This slight slipperiness to the fresh material can put off a few potential users.
The main supplier of UK flax bedding is Belvoir, which has supplied another alternative, chopped and treated straw, for six years. Their sales have climbed rapidly over the past two years, having modified their treatment and handling techniques.
* More absorbent
This chopped straw is more absorbent than long straw because the lacerating creates more surface area. The grey film of dust on modern straw, where the sprays have killed all the micro-organisms, is then cleaned off in a two or three stage process.
Belvoir processes 12,000-14,000 tonnes of straw a year, resulting in 30 tonnes of dust to dispose of each week. The dust is used in industry to mop up spillages.
One of the potential drawbacks of chopped straw is that horses will still eat it. However, most manufacturers have been successful in adding bitter substances that put off all but the greediest of horses. In addition some add mould inhibitors to ensure the straw strays clean in storage and the bed lasts longer. It also means a semi-deep litter system can be used, emptying the wet monthly.
Adding value to straw is also the activity of Sundown, Huntingdon. Its recent innovation blends chopped straw and shavings, earning it the new product award by the British Equestrian Trade Association. This easy-to-manage product is proving particularly popular in racing yards, many of which have had shredded paper in the past. Although paper is slightly more absorbent than straw and shavings products, users are put off by the paper debris in the yard, which is particularly unattractive. Disposal of the soiled bedding can then be tricky.
Paper may have more of a future in another form – a recycled and pelleted product, called Fosse DrybeD. This is a small grey firm pellet – rather like cat litter which has overcome the appearance and disposal problems of shredded paper. Most importantly this processed pellet is the most absorbent bedding on the market – at six times the absorbency of straw.
The distributors are finding it is a big hit with those with rubber matting. A small quantity of the litter absorbs the urine keeping the horse, and its rugs, relatively clean.
* Start-up cost high
It can also be used in a semi-deep litter system. This does have an initial high start up cost of £65-£80, for 12 to 15 bags. The bags are smaller than most other types of bedding, and one or two are needed each week to top up the bed.
Despite the costs, users are delighted by the time it saves. Picking up droppings is quick and the underlying caked base is removed from once a week to once a month, depending on preference and horses.
To add further food for thought there are now several additives which reduce mould and bacteria. These help reduce mucking out time and can mean less bedding is used.
Variations on these powders have been available to the dairy industry for several years. There are now several brands on the market including StableDry, Stalosan F, Sirocco Stable Deodoriser and Stable Fresh. These sterilise and absorb ammonia to different degrees.
One step further is to use enzymes to break down the urine – and enable a full-deep litter system. The bedding needs to be about 25cm (1ft) deep to enable the enzymes to work undisturbed. The only type of bedding it is not suitable for is long straw – otherwise it can stay in place for 18 months. I think Ill try this and report back in a year!
Hemcore, Latchmore Bank, Little Hallingbury, Bishops Stortford, Essex CM22 7PJ 01279 504466
Aubiose, Grain House Farm, Chaceley, Glos GL19 4EH 01452 780499
Caunton Grass Driers Limited, Hockerton Road, Caunton, Newark, Notts NG23 6BA 01636 636427
Belvoir Horse Feeds,
Coleby Airfield, Boothby Graffoe Heath, LN54 0LR
Fosse Drybed Whetstone Magna,
Lutterworth Road, Whetstone, Leics. LE8 6NB
Sundown Straw Beds,
Station Road, Tilbrook, Huntingdon, Cambs PE18 6JN
BioAnimal Health, Kinckhams Barns, West Bergholt, Colchester CO6 3DN 01206 271404