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Peeing Forward Part II

January 15, 2015

On farm fertility capture is a lot of work.  During the growing season a well-planned rotation of farm animals makes manure management easy. The soil is warm and active with soil life that helps break down the manure and urine into usable plant food.  Winter time is a different story.  The soil is cold and the soil life is taking a break like we are, waiting for warmth so we can become more active.  In a nutshell, with livestock you either want movement during the growing season, or in the dormant season you want to add carbon.  Mobstocking takes care of that with the carbon in place and livestock moving through, but not everyone has standing carbon, or the desire to move their livestock during the dark days.  This post deals with that.  Remember the ideal situation is the one that works for YOU on your farm, not mine, or any one else’s farm. This is meant to be a spaghetti on the fridge type of post.  If it sticks… .

We use a variety of methods to hang onto as much of the fertility our livestock generates during winter as we can.  Hens and beef are on deep bedding, and the milk cow and her calves are kept in the more traditional manner of bedded stalls that are cleaned daily.  Each method has its highlights and drawbacks.  Labor, equipment, carbon expense, livestock type and building design all have to be taken into consideration.  There is no perfect solution, each farmer and the farm will have a different set of variables to work with.  Things to remember, you won’t capture all the nutrients your livestock will provide, but you want to capture as  much as you’re able to while keeping the livestock needs met.

The Homeplace Boys

The Homeplace Boys


Like many other farm tasks if you do one thing right or in the right order, the rest will fall into place.  As the farmer you have to be able to discern the difference between what one animal needs compared to another.  For example, you don’t treat a milk cow like a beef cow when it comes to bedding, they are both cows, but in the barn or pasture they have different needs.  Too often the farmer lumps animals together for convenience whether it be grazing or bedding.  Due to the low hanging udder and milking schedule of a dairy cow, they are not good candidates for deep bedding.  The udder of a beef cow is normally smaller, higher on the body, and is constantly drained of milk by a calf.  There is much less chance of environmental mastitis due to those factors.

Loafing shed

Loafing shed

Jane, the milk cow sleeps here in this loafing shed at night.  This barn has old-growth Douglas fir siding, and the feeder gate is fixed in place.  Letting deep bedding build up in this barn would be less than desirable, the siding would be ruined after a few seasons and these days is almost irreplaceable, and the fixed feeder would be buried with deep bedding, making it hard for the cow to eat without getting down on her knees as the deep bedding builds up.  With end walls this loafing shed is also hard to clean out properly with equipment.  It can be done, but still requires a fair amount of handwork.  But the most important thing in my mind is that Jane stays clean.  Clean cow, clean milk.

Daily cleaning by hand is the easiest way to keep Jane spiffy, and to make this necessary daily job bearable.  Jane and the two calves generate two 6 cubic foot wheelbarrow of material each night. This includes bedding material too, not straight manure.  Figure roughly 20 – 25 pounds of bedding per day per full-grown dairy animal.

Depending on the carbon source, you may use a little less or a little more.  Our carbon of choice is straw in small square bales.  It’s easy to handle a fifty pound bale with no extra equipment needed, I like the straw too for the garden compared to wood products.  We also provide a dumping site for orphan stable cleanings from a friends stable, it consists of kiln dried shavings or sawdust and horse manure, and they deliver.  Yes!  Free carbon!  New shavings used to be economical, but now cost about $140 per unit (approximately 6 yards) and need to be kept dry after delivery which requires a separate area from hay and straw that we don’t have. Buy the bedding you want to use and store it properly, this is your fertilizer expenditure.

Jane’s night soil either is used for sheet composting in the garden, orchard, or goes directly to our compost area.

Layer flock on deep bedding - greenhouse

Layer flock on deep bedding – greenhouse

The other hand job around here bedding-wise is the laying hens.  A flake of straw a day keeps these ladies feet clean and keeps me supplied with the easiest compost I can generate.  My goal is to keep the eggs clean, but what I get is clean eggs AND the most wonderful stuff you can imagine for your garden.  Another case of doing the right thing first hand and the end result is that you are paid back many fold.

Hen pecked compost

Hen pecked compost

As you can see, this is practically soil.  All I do is supply clean bedding daily, and the hens naturally stir and mix and make this.  Amazing.  Even if they didn’t lay eggs, they would be paying their way with this light and easy to handle material.

feeding shed

feeding shed

Now on to a bigger problem.  More cows than just a house cow.  Twenty hens is one thing, but twenty cows?  Cleaning up after twenty cows does not happen by hand.  Enter deep bedding.  A deep bedding/manure pack is great if your barn is set up for it, and you know how to run equipment or want to learn.  My rule of thumb for labor expenditure for manure handling is that I should at least devote the same amount of time to fertility catchment as I do feeding.  So far, that keeps me from being too anal about the whole manure thing.  To do that I need my feed and carbon in place where I plan to do the feeding and bedding, which also means last summer I needed to devote some thought to that.  Our hay and straw is stored directly adjacent to the feeding shed where we intend to use it.

Deep bedding isn’t all wine and roses though.  The first year we wanted to implement deep bedding we had our heads down (most likely in the sand) and we weren’t the discerning farmers we should have been.  Getting. The. Shed. Done. Was the most important thing.  Before winter.   What we didn’t take into consideration was spring calving.  Field bred seasoned beef cows don’t cause much anxiety for their farmers.  You just keep a weather eye and watch for any problems.  Before Feeding Shed, BFS, calving was no BFD, the cows were out, they could choose a clean place to give birth.  But we wanted to keep the cows in to give the pasture a much-needed rest.  So in short, calves were born on deep bedding.  Which is not the end of the world, but it’s not ideal.  Calving in a barn in a well bedded stall or calving shed is fine with one or two cows.  If you want to calve in winter you need a separate area for calving in addition to an area for building deep bedding.  You see, a calf is born with no immunities, and their umbilical, hooves, nose and mouth are all just giant sponges waiting to soak up pathogens.  A clean shed with only a mother-to-be or two, no big deal.  A crowded shed with the entire herd, is awful.  Besides the potential for contamination, the baby can get hurt by the herd mates just due to the crowding issues.  The calves turned out okay, we stopped the experiment and put everyone out, and let the rest of the cows calve in the pasture or woods.  Farming is always a choice – guilt usually creeps in.  Do you pick plants or animals.  For me it’s an easy choice, I always pick the animal first.  There is still guilt, I felt bad about the pasture, but I felt worse about those calvies for sure.  Now we are a little smarter and calve in late spring.  There is no chance anyone will be born on the deep bedding pack.

Deep doodoo - four feet to be exact

Deep doodoo – four feet to be exact

Here is where building design comes in if you’re considering deep bedding, gates instead of siding finish this shed off.  Easy access end to end for equipment makes cleaning this deep bedding a snap compared to digging out all the corners in the other barn.  The feeder panels can be raised also as the bedding builds up, allowing easy access to hay as the bedding accumulates.  After the cows go out at the start of grazing season you could run pigs in here too, to break up the manure pack, but that depends on your pork market, and if you want to deal with pigs.  Our feeding shed is 20′ x 40′, sixteen to twenty pigs would do a great job turning this space in about a month, less pigs than that, while doable, just drags out the cleaning of the space as it becomes just pig housing with some mild rooting action, and pig manure added.  Our goal with the deep bedding is to have the space cleaned out by the end of haying season so we can fertilize the hay fields and give the space some rest before the next go round of bedding.  A word about pathogens, you can break up parasite loads by changing species in a space, or by time.  Thirty days is the minimum for rest if the species don’t change.


Then what?  Next I’ll explore the composted animal manure calendar here.


11 Comments leave one →
  1. January 15, 2015 5:42 pm

    What you are doing on your farm is beautiful. The thought and care that go into everything is evident. What you are doing on your blog is such an amazing gift. Thank you.

  2. January 15, 2015 6:29 pm

    so educational, thank you! I love these words together “Jane’s night soil.”

  3. January 15, 2015 7:01 pm

    Brilliant. We run our cows outside all year as we don’t have severe winters, but do have to use a “sacrificial paddock” when the grass has slowed right down. Do you have any issues with parasites using deep bedding for the chickens?

    • January 19, 2015 2:48 pm

      Helen, we haven’t had any parasite issues, but we do rotate them since we have two of those small hoophouses. Total cleanout and a couple of months rest between flocks.

  4. January 16, 2015 8:23 am

    The author of Just Enough pointed out that farmers in Edo Japan valued the manure of wealthier people more than the manure of poorer people because of the difference in diet and resulting difference in manure mineral content.

    Following that logic it makes good sense to put the beef cow manure back on the hayfield and Jane’s manure in your garden. This is not to suggest that your beef cattle are neglected in any way but they don’t get the variety that Jane gets.

    I think this also applies to chicken manure. Different sources offer differing quality. I suspect yours, coming from the greenhouse where birds are offered a wide variety of food options, is better than most.

    Concerning sticking spaghetti, Our cows have been in the barn and lot for 10 days. Yesterday Julie took them back to pasture. They were clearly happy about the change. But they also clearly benefited from being in the barn during the severe cold snap (I realize “severe” is relative…). A hybrid system seems to work for us but wear what you dig….or…what makes your cows thrive.

    • January 16, 2015 8:27 am

      I also thought it was great that you included detail for bedding quantities, resultant cleanup quantities and time to allocate to the chore. This was a great post Matron.

  5. January 16, 2015 10:24 pm

    That sure is a nice tractor you have there 🙂
    Currently we do all that involves haying, and feeding with a 1968 JD 4020.
    It is old and scary; but hubby likes it.
    In Northern Alberta were I live manure storage and handling is becoming a big deal. It is environmental reasons that push this idea due to risk of contamination of water sources. Water table, wetlands etc.
    There is major grant money available in Alberta for “producers” to embrace modern systems.

    Our 20 cows are perpetually outside, all year, and this is acceptable practice. Loafing sheds are as good a home as they can expect up here. Our cows are provided deep bedding surrounded by wind-breaks.
    These are 12′ high, 25′ long steel pipe panels that are lined with rough lumber to make a solid wall. Every couple of days I try and fork out the frozen pies from the straw, to help it last longer. Because no roof overhead, every major snowfall means another straw bale.
    In temps maintaining average of 6.8F, and sometimes dipping as low as -40F the bedding is the only comfort offered and they really do well.
    Our next planned purchase will be a manure spreader; keeping in mind we plan on maxing out around 50 head eventually, and orobably will always winter them in same small pasture. Here we get 5′ of actual snow. Needless to say cows and tractors don’t go far by this time of year.
    Do you have any advice on what type of spreader Nita?

    • January 17, 2015 6:12 am

      Oh, you have us beat, our International 444 is a ’71, been here since it was born, old but not scary. As for manure spreaders, figure out how you want to use it, and make the choice between PTO and ground-drive, make and model probably doesn’t make much difference.

  6. January 22, 2015 10:40 am

    Just loving this post, keep coming back to it to rsearch! I was wondering, could you possibly provide a diagram of how your house cow set up works with the night loafing shed, the milking area and then how you do her pasture? Especially curious how you do that over winter.


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