Animal Health & Welfare
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There have been traditionally a variety of bedding materials and bedding routines for housed dairy cattle, the choice of which is based on a variety of factors, most notably material cost and availability, plus handling, storage and labour requirements. While some materials have significant advantages over others, it is important to recognise that bedding routines are equally as important as the choice of material.
While the primary consideration of bedding materials may be in the avoidance or reduction of mastitis problems in the herd, there is some evidence to suggest that the material used for bedding can have an impact on herd mobility. The ability for cows to grip well as they lie down or stand limits the potential for injuries from slipping, and the incidence of sole ulcers in dairy herds has been tentatively linked to a lack of good bedding management on some farms.
While sand is renowned as an inert bedding material of particular use in controlling pathogen spread in cattle housing - as both a deep-bedded material and a surface bedding material.
Only fine, washed sand should be used, as other more abrasive varieties have been identified as potential causes of mobility problems due to the damage they can cause to feet through abrasion. Sand has other advantages to cow mobility such as providing good traction on otherwise slippery cubicle passageways and similar surfaces.
Chopped straw is a widely-used bedding material for dairy cow cubicle housing in the UK, and when clean, dry, well-stored straw is used and managed correctly it can provide a comfortable environment for cattle bedding. However, where straw beds are allowed to become heavily soiled, particularly in deep-bedded yards, the bedding has the potential for becoming an effective medium for pathogens responsible for causing infectious foot problems. Further problems can result from straw and muck hardening onto hooves, particularly between claws and where fissures occur in cleats, enabling these pathogens to infect the foot more easily.
Sawdust and Wood Shavings
Sawdust can be a highly variable material, but when screened and dried can provide an effective bedding material when managed properly. It is easy to use - although some sawdust products can be dusty and some fine types can be particularly hazardous to farm staff when being applied - and works well with automated scrapers and slurry systems. Unscreened materials are unsuitable as they can contain shards of wood and even nails and are likely to be very variable. Damp sawdust is an excellent medium for supporting many pathogens so it is essential to keep sawdust dry in storage; well-managed sawdust-based systems can give excellent results but when badly-managed there is considerable potential for problems to occur.
Wood shavings are sometimes used for surface bedding but are very expensive and not as absorbent as sawdust.
Some proprietary sawdust-based bedding products are available which have an incorporated disinfectant, reducing the need for hydrated lime or disinfectant powders commonly used for cattle bedding.
Paper-based bedding materials
A variety of paper-based products are used for livestock bedding, including shredded waste paper, paper pulp and specially-designed proprietary granulated bedding products.
Specially-designed granulated materials can possess excellent characteristics that make them suitable as dairy cow bedding. The latent alkalinity of some paper-based products also has a disinfectant effect and can help to control pathogens.
Paper pulp can set hard, and can produce an undesirable uneven surface. When wet it can heat-up to provide good conditions for pathogens to flourish. Shredded paper is not widley used on farms as it is not particularly absorbent, and cattle bedded on this materials can appear dirty.
Hydrated Lime and Disinfectant powders
Lime is used sparingly with other bedding materials. It has the potential to dry-out and damage teat and udder skin and so must be adequately covered with chopped straw or sawdust, but is very useful in drying-out soiled wet patches on cubicle beds and controlling bacterial levels.
Proprietary disinfectants in powder form are available and used similarly to lime to control bacterial numbers in cattle bedding when used in conjunction with materials such as straw or sawdust.
There are several other materials being used by dairy farmers for cattle bedding, including gypsum (from plasterboard), wood bark and lime ash. Many of these materials are produced from recyclable sources or are industrial by-products, and their availability will vary depending on location and perhaps seasonally.
Some materials may have a limited scope for use; wood bark for example, is not particularly suitable for dairy cows but it can be used under straw yards to help to eke out stocks of straw for bedding dry cows. Lime ash has a high alkalinity, so while it has a good anti-bacterial effect, it must be used carefully and mixed with more inert materials to avoid teat and udder skin damage.
Plasterboard-based materials can have many advantages, particularly if a local recycling centre handling the material is located nearby; the material is alkaline and acts as a natural disinfectant, however as an aside, users have reported that it can increase the incidence of compliants about odours when slurry containing the material is being spread.
Bedding routines and management
Whichever material is chosen, it is essential that cubicle surfaces are kept dry and any soiled or damp bedding is removed on a twice-daily basis at least. Fresh bedding should be added daily, even if this means materials such as chopped straw that can be applied liberally less-frequently are piled at the front of the cubicle bed to be simply drawn backwards daily to replace the soiled materials removed from the bed. Passageways should be scraped regularly to reduce the occurrence of muck and slurry being transferred onto cubicle beds via the cows' feet. The bedding material chosen has obvious implications for slurry handling, particularly where an abrasive material is used.