Bedding Material - organic or inorganic

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, and handling, storage and labour requirements.

While some materials have significant advantages over others, it is important to recognise that bedding routines and the storage, handling and use of bedding materials are often equally as important as the choice of material.

All bedding materials - whether organic or inorganic based materials - must be dry when purchased, stored in dry conditions and be dry when applied. The inorganic materials such as sand provide a much lower potential to support the pathogens that cause mastitis than organic materials.

Sand

While sand is renowned as an inert bedding material of particular use in controlling mastitis pathogen spread in cattle housing - as both a deep-bedded material and a surface bedding material - it poses problems in terms of handling and slurry management and spreading.

Only fine, washed sand should be used, as other varieties are likely to be too abrasive and can cause foot problems. The appropriate grade of sand used as bedding should result in fewer cow mobility problems and sand has other advantages such as providing good traction on otherwise slippery surfaces.

As cows can easily dig-out sand in deep beds and yards, they need to be raked, removing dung and soiled areas, on a daily basis, require topping up at least weekly and will require complete removal and replacement of the sand at least every six months.

Sand, being abrasive, causes greatly accelerated wear in slurry-handling equipment and in concreted passageways. The use of sand for bedding can also result in blocked drains.

Despite this, many farmers using sand believe that its advantages as a bedding material outweigh the cost implications associated with maintaining the machinery required.

Straw

Chopped straw is probably the most widely-used bedding material used for dairy cow cubicle housing in the UK, and when clean, dry, well-stored straw is used and managed correctly it can provide an effective environment for cattle bedding, although straw is noted as being particularly good at supporting Streptococci species of mastitis-causing pathogens.

The cost and availability of straw can vary widely from season to season and area to area, and these two considerations often control whether straw is used as a bedding material on a farm, rather than its relative effectiveness in comparison with other products. In deep-bedded yards straw needs particularly good management to limit mastitis problems.

Because it needs to be chopped to be used in cubicle bedding, it requires extra labour and machinery in the systems where it is utilised. Straw also has the potential, particularly if it is not chopped to a very short length, of blocking slats and slurry systems.

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 coliform mastitis 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.

Paper-based products tend to be expensive but the 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 mastitis 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 greatly-used on farms as it is not particularly absorbent, and cattle bedded on paper-based materials can appear particularly dirty.

Hydrated lime

Lime is used sparingly with other bedding materials. It will 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.

Disinfectant powders

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. In many herds they contribute to the overall efforts in controlling environmental mastitis levels.

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.

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