Dairy cows spend roughly half their time lying down. Research has shown that comfortable bedding materials influence resting times, cow comfort and subsequently milk production. Because they come in contact with the cow’s udder, bedding materials also play a key role in cow cleanliness and in the prevention of mastitis. This is extremely important since mastitis is the most important and costly disease affecting dairy cattle.
Over the years, wood by-products such as sawdust and shavings have been the primary beddings used on many dairy farms. Recently the closing of sawmills and an increase in the use of these byproducts for the generation of heat and electricity have drastically reduced the supplies of good bedding materials and increased the prices paid for these materials by farmers. For these reasons suitable alternative beddings must be identified and researched.
What makes a good dairy bedding varies with the farm and depends on the type of housing, the management of the bedding and stalls, and the type of manure handling system. In general, good bedding materials must be:
- Comfortable for the cows to lay on
- Non abrasive to the knees and hocks
- Non slippery and offer confident footing when cows recline and rise
- High in absorptive capacity for water and urine
- Low in initial levels of environmental bacteria
- Able to slow or inhibit the bacterial growth
- Non-compactable and not dusty
- Easy to handle and maintain in stalls
- Provides value in land application after use
- In constant supply
Of all the materials available for bedding, sand has been shown to excel in cow comfort and mastitis prevention. However the use of sand as a bedding material is not without problems. Sand can be quite variable in its quality and composition, it is heavy, non-absorbent, dusty and abrasive to both cows and equipment, and can freeze quite hard if not totally dry. Because of the problems with sand, many Maine dairy farmers would still prefer to use products similar to sawdust and shavings if they were available. One product that shows potential as an alternative to traditional wood by-products as a livestock bedding is Short Paper Fiber residual (SPF). SPF is a byproduct of the pulping process and consists of wood fibers of insufficient strength or length to be reused in the pulp manufacturing process. SPF is plentiful and available in Maine. It contains organic matter, clay fillers and lime that when applied to the land, can improve soil structure, fertility and pH. One disadvantage of SPF as a bedding material is that it is quite wet as it comes directly from the plant and must be dried or mixed with dry ingredients to be suitable for livestock bedding.