The cost and quality of bedding will be one of the biggest challenges facing livestock farmers over the coming winter months.
Livestock advisers across all species are sending out the same message “look at every option available and consider bedding you may not have used before”. But they are urging farmers to be careful about the quality of any bedding offered and to be wary of materials that seem too cheap or are unproven for their particular use.
The biggest issue this season concerns straw. Prices are about £90 a tonne for barley straw, but as one northern merchant put it “the price of straw can only go one way”.
The inclement summer weather has left a lot of straw wet or at least damp – something causing concern among all merchants – and it’s inevitably pushing up the price for superior, dry straw.
Straw left on the ground is not improving in quality and where arable farmers are keen to get the plough in quickly it’s meaning a lot of damp straw is being baled straight behind the combine.
Cheshire straw merchant Andrew Sharpe was quoting £85-£95 a tonne for barley straw in late August with wheat straw a little cheaper.
“Some straw that would normally have been baled is being chopped in the field and some that’s being baled isn’t being sold yet so there is a supply issue as well as a quality one.
“The moisture content of straw is something everyone has to be aware of this winter – if it’s damp the straw will just turn into a brick,” said Mr Sharpe.
Beef producers needing bedding for cattle yards must be very careful about using damp straw, warned SAC beef specialist Gavin Hill.
“It’s not just an animal welfare issue it’s a human one too. Damp straw used for bedding and then eaten can pose a health risk to stock and especially to in-calf heifers which may abort calves as a result. But even when large amounts of damp straw is being handled by staff using choppers, the dust produced is a real health hazard.”
Mr Hill said some beef producers were looking at paper waste or possibly woodchip or wood bark, but he wasn’t convinced that these presented viable options unless advice was sought on the full implications of their use before making any decision.
Woodchip-type materials are being looked at as an alternative to straw in certain situations, but advisers say beef cattle producers must be aware of the need to have correct drainage when this type of material is considered as an option.
“If straw is used this winter it’s important to make sure it is of good quality and bought from a reliable source. But whatever alternative bedding is being considered it’s important to seek advice before making an order,” urges Mr Hill.
Pig producers on straw-based systems have no other bedding options according to Northern Ireland adviser Mark Hawe.
For “thermal comfort” straw has no equal for pigs, but while the high price of good quality straw is going to be a heavy burden for hard-pressed pig producers to bear this winter, “fusty” material will put pig health at risk.
“Sow infertility and poor growth in growing pigs are the two big issues of poor-quality straw, because of the dangerous mould spores it produces.
“I’d advise anyone using straw this winter to buy the best quality possible for pig bedding, but also to use an additive in the feed to combat the impact of inhalation or consumption of the spores contained in mouldy or damp bedding,” he said.
Peter Shipton of Kingshay said dairy farmers must be vigilant about not introducing any damp material on to cubicle beds.
“Any chopped straw that is damp or even damp sawdust is the last thing that should be put on to a cubicle bed, so it’s very important to buy from reliable sources this winter – particularly when the quality of many bedding materials is an issue.
“A mix of good quality dry sawdust and lime-ash is a popular combination for cubicles, but the sawdust must be dry and not contain any splinters that can damage hocks.”
Mr Shipton said this winter could see paper-based kiln dried bedding products offer good value in a season when the price of other bedding materials looks likely to rise.
Scottish herd manager David Ellis runs a 1,200-cow herd at Broadwigg Farm, Newton Stewart for Forsyth Farms.
“Our priority for cubicle bedding is something that’s useable and feasible. We’ve been using lime-ash, but it was extremely dusty and corrosive. We’ve now reached a compromise and switched to alternating lime-ash and Envirobed on the cubicles and the two are complimenting each other and giving us a non-dusty and inert bed at a good price,” he said.
The NFU has issued guidance on the use of gypsum and gypsum-based products in bedding.
Since the beginning of the year concerns have been raised in the industry about the practice of adding gypsum and gypsum-based products such as recycled plasterboard to livestock bedding.
Gypsum, or calcium sulphate, contains high levels of sulphur, which encourage bugs in muck to produce even greater amounts of hydrogen sulphide from the slurry.
Hydrogen sulphide is highly toxic and can cause unconsciousness after taking a single breath at high concentration. Hydrogen sulphide has a rotten egg odour at low levels, but at higher levels it cannot be detected.
What you need to do
The NFU suggests the following:
1 Check what bedding is being used for livestock before entering buildings or areas near manure and slurry systems.
2 If the bedding is gypsum, mixed with gypsum, or is plasterboard, do not enter buildings or any confined/restricted spaces.
3 There are no waste exemptions that allow waste gypsum or plasterboard to be used as animal bedding.
Plasterboard backing paper with the gypsum removed can be used as bedding in accordance with U8 exemption.
Read more on cattle deaths from hydrogen sulphide