Advice on sourcing alternative bedding options this winter

Straw prices have risen 20-50% on the year as drought has hit cereal yields. 

Farming unions have urged arable farmers to bale as much straw as possible to address supply deficits.

Many livestock farms have no carry-over bedding stocks after a long and difficult winter, which has prompted farming unions to leap into action, advising farms to plan ahead and be prepared to source alternative bedding materials.  

With more arable farmers now baling rape straw, we take a look at some of the potential challenges that may arise from using this bedding and also investigate other options for getting through the winter.

See also: 6 alternative bedding options to straw compared

What questions to ask when buying alternative bedding:

1) When buying rape straw – has the rape crop been treated with Astrokerb?

  • Rape straw treated with the herbicide Astrokerb cannot leave the field other than to be burned for heat/electricity production.
  • The aminopyralid in the blackgrass weed killer makes it dangerous, says Dow AgroSciences UK.
  • Aminopyralid binds to cellulose in broad-leaved weeds and only starts decomposing when in contact with soil micro-organisms when spread onto land. It can lead to failure in following crops.
  • Farmers should not feed, bed or compost with rape straw treated with Astrokerb. Dow’s other product (Kerb) is fine.

2) When buying wood byproducts – has woodchip been screened and is it safe?

  • Waste wood is graded A to D based on contamination levels. Only grade A (untreated, clean) should be used for animal bedding.
  • Check what grade the wood is and whether it has been screened, because it could create a risk to livestock or the environment.
  • Farmers should be aware of regulatory and farm assurance requirements when sourcing bedding because some assurance schemes may not allow it and it could lead to non-compliance.

3) Using wood chip and paper – can I spread it on the land?

  • Virgin timbers from whole trees (woodland management, tree surgery, sawmill) are not classed as waste and are under no restrictions when used as animal bedding.
  • Wood products from non-virgin timbers (chipboard, fibreboard, fencing) are waste and are subject to regulatory waste controls.
  • Paper pulp, paper sludge, waste wood shavings, waste woodchip and waste sawdust can be spread on land under exemption, but must be treated through composting or anaerobic digestion and then spread under Environment Agency exemptions.

(Source: NFU)

For a full analysis of alternative bedding products, visit the AHDB’s bedding directory (PDF)

Options for upland farmers

Farmers Weekly spoke to AHDB Beef and Sheep scientist Dr Mary Vickers and NFU Scotland vice president and Perthshire farmer Martin Kennedy, Aberfeldy, about some of the options livestock and upland farmers can consider. 

As part of NFU Scotland’s #HowDoYouPlan campaign, Mr Kennedy is urging cooperation across the farming sector.

  • Some farmers are cutting upland rushes to pad out bedding materials, making the most of dry weather that has allowed machinery to travel on upland areas.
  • Make wheat/barley straw last longer by using rape straw or rushes to create a drainage layer at the base of the bedding.
  • Consider an outdoor corral to cut your straw requirement by reducing the need for straw in bedded areas.
  • A long, dry summer could be used to extend the grazing season on higher ground, although this depends on autumn rainfall.
  • Consider outwintering where you have suitable land and stock, as this can reduce the housing period.
  • Keep straw dry during storage as that will improve its absorbency and reduce waste.
  • Fix any leaking gutters, troughs and pipes that could make bedding wet.
  • Scrape areas around water troughs and feeding areas when cattle are housed.
  • Consider lengthening your grazing season or outwintering in a sacrifice field and redrill it in the spring.
  • Many people are now growing kale/turnips to finish lambs and cattle – consider selling stores later in the year and outwinter breeding stock on this ground.  

Straw prices at a glance

Martyn Horn, hay and straw merchant, Okehampton, Devon

Recently quoted ex-farm prices of £110/t (barley), £100/t (wheat), £65-£70/t (rape)

“Prices are 50% up on the year. Delivery costs vary hugely and are worth £10/t from east to west Devon and another £10/t from east to west Cornwall.

“Power stations burning straw have put pressure on supplies, but they’ve put a bottom in the market. Without them putting in this base price for straw there would be less baled than there is in a normal year.”

Brian Peacock, hay and straw merchant, Thirsk, North Yorkshire

Recently quoted ex-farm prices of £80/t (barley), £65/t (wheat) and £50/t (rape)

“Straw yields are down 50-75% on the barley – we were only getting 1.2t/acre. Overall things look 30% dearer than last year in this area.

“This is an ideal summer for arable farmers to turn the choppers off and bale. Harvest is early, the ground is hard and won’t suffer from compaction and there is the obvious benefit of prices being 30-50% higher across the country.”

He said early reports suggest  more farmers have baled this year and some have baled rape straw for the first time in 30 years of growing it.

“Selling straw at £50/acre may help make up for the tonne of wheat that didn’t grow in the drought for arable farmers. Power stations are taking straw, but this is perhaps 10%, which leaves a lot of straw still available. There is far more straw chopped than burned in a typical year.”

Graham Lawman, hay and straw merchant, Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire

Recently quoted ex-farm prices of £70-£75/t (barley), £60-65/t (wheat) and £60/t (rape)

Mr Lawman says the good news is that wheat straw quality is excellent this year, but the prices are looking 20-25% dearer, which isn’t being helped by strong demand from Ireland and the continent. 

“France has now finished its harvest and straw yields were down there. Dutch lorries were queuing up for it in the field because of Danish cropping being down hugely. Merchants I know in the Netherlands have been taking calls from Sweden and Norway because bedding is so short further north. 

“There has been a lot more straw baled this year, but the price may stabilise now around where it is. A lot depends on the next few weeks and whether rains come, because there is some forecast and if the last third is all chopped then it could put pressure on supplies.”