The amount of materials used for bedding in dairy stalls or dairy barns varies with location and availability. It also can make a difference the storage and ability to handle the materials. While these basics are true for all animals, dairies must also be especially concerned with bacteria, mastitis and related issues.
Some dairies look to sand as it’s dry and long lasting. Others criticize the expense, difficulty in handling and in disposing of soiled bedding. When it’s used in freestalls – where cows must walk in and back out – waste is kept to a minimum, especially when most of the bedding is towards the front where the cow gets the benefit of laying on it. Occasionally it must be raked and “straightened” so cows get the maximum comfort from it. It can be stored outside until needed as if it’s rained on it will dry eventually, but is heavy to handle if it gets wet as it gets very heavy. Even if you have tractors this is a consideration when bedding as all equipment has limits!
Others look to wood shavings or sawdust as an option, with some disliking sawdust as it can get wet and harbor bacteria which in turn can lead to mastitis infections and a loss of production. Shavings also have this property but are not as finely ground. Either is more cost effective and more readily breaks down, allowing the use of it in compost or spread on fields where it breaks down. It is absorbent so soaks up wet, which can be good in some applications if it’s removed often. Sawdust should not be used in birthing stalls as the fine particles get into the eyes, nose and membranes of the calf and cow, increasing (again) possibilities of infection. Some farms use shavings with straw on top – often the straw is put down when she is in active labor.
Straw, a byproduct of the wheat industry (as well as some others, such as oat straw), is a cheap resource in some areas. It is more difficult to clean without waste and can be bulky to store, taking up valuable space that could be used for hay. Like hay it must be kept dry and mold free. While there is fiber in it, straw is edible but not normally considered a food source, other than it’s not generally harmful if an animal eats it.
There are other bedding sources sometimes mentioned but these are among the most common. Some farms use shredded rubber often used for horse arenas – comfortable for the animals to lay on but it doesn’t break down when spread or composted.
For just a few animals it pays to research, ask questions, consider your own facility and needs. Remember that bedding consideration also includes handling, storage, cost and disposal (usually with manure and urine). For small places it also includes if tractors and spreaders are available and if it’s a ‘freestall’ system or just a large open area which may need cleaned more frequently.
Choose the best option for your needs and your animals.