How to choose the right winter bedding for dairy cows

Is one bedding system better than an other in terms of cow health and production? Research carried out by the University of Wisconsin suggests not.

Trial work looking at 16 different bedding surfaces found that different surfaces did not have a significant impact on milk yield.

Although some materials might be slightly harder to manage, or can make the cows dirtier, the over-riding message is that if cubicle dimensions and cubicle surfaces are right, and the bedding material is managed correctly, one system is not significantly better than another.

In other words, you need to use the bedding material compatible with your particular farm system, taking into consideration things such as your slurry management system and the level of labour input available.

And you need to manage the material well to ensure maximum comfort and best results.

With the price and availability of straw unpredictable, and an increasing variety of non-traditional materials available at attractive prices, it’s worth having a good look at what is out there.

But remember that skimping on any bedding product will cause real problems and the consequences are much worse than having higher bedding costs.

Alternative bedding materials vary from paper, wall paper and cardboard, to paper fibre, crushed wall board, and gypsum.

Many of these materials are produced from recyclable sources or are industrial by-products, and their availability will vary depending on location and perhaps season.

In many cases, their properties are not as well known as the traditional straw, shavings, sand or sawdust, so it’s extremely important to do your research before you buy.


Remember, livestock bedding is a relatively new use for waste materials so it is important you get all the information you can about the properties of these materials, including their impact on animal health, and environmental and health and safety implications for people working with them.

And whatever bedding you’re considering, material handling needs to be convenient and fit into your current bedding system, as well as your manure handling and spreading system.

Plasterboard-based materials can have many advantages, particularly when a local recycling centre handling the material is located nearby. The material is alkaline and acts as a natural disinfectant.


However, you also need to think carefully about if a product will clump and solidify once moisture is added to it.

How will it pump out? How abrasive will it be to your slurry handling system and how well will it compost in the field? Is it compatible with slurry channels or pumps?

Think carefully about these aspects of bedding material before you try a new alternative.

It’s also a good idea to try to find out if anyone else has used the product you want to try.

If you can get some first-hand feedback on how the material functioned as bedding and how it fitted into the management system it could be extremely useful.

See if the company you are purchasing from can provide you with a contact who has already used the material.

Some of these alternative beddings, although cheaper than traditional sources, can only be delivered in large amounts so providing safe, dry storage is another factor to consider.

Efficient straw use

It might be worth thinking about existing straw usage within your system and seeing if you can make better use of this expensive resource. Look at your storage. Is wastage costing valuable amounts of bedding?

Using a straw chopper will save straw but there are definite health issues associated with it.

I’m seeing an increasing number of head-to-head cubicles being installed and, of course, straw choppers can’t be used with them as the straw simply blows through and ends up in the passageway.

First and foremost you need bedding that works for you and your systems. Don’t make extra work for yourself and always think about the health implications for your cows and those bedding up.

However, investigate your options, because alternative bedding may be a real opportunity, particularly if your location means availability can be guaranteed year round.