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Is Deep Bedding for You?

January 29, 2016

Well, that depends.  I can only write about what works and doesn’t work for us.  Possibly a better way to look at it is the why?

Why deep bed in the first place?  The reason we decided to implement deep bedding was twofold.  We needed to jump start fertility in our pastures because we really wanted to get out of bringing in inferior hay that our cattle would not eat.  That in turn meant we would have to make our own hay here instead of relying on other people’s land base.  We also needed to give our pastures a rest from the cows.  Remember I grew up with the cows being out all year round, and we hauled feed to them every day of hay feeding season.  So simple, hardly any equipment was required, but it was months of hauling hay and finding a clean spot in the pastures.  Rain, snow, sleet, ice, we stuck with that for years, and we still do feed out like that for the beginning of winter.  Deep bedding? Huh?  Cows in a barn?  What’s that?  A paradigm shift for this stick in the mud?  Cough, cough.  That was a tough one.


01-02-14 (26)
We stuck our toes in first in this barn with the fixed feeder.  I have to say deep bedding is pretty amazing how it builds up, and builds up, and builds up.  Pretty soon the cows were on their knees eating hay and we were starting to get nervous about the old growth fir siding and the inevitable manure buildup touching it.  The proof that this idea wasn’t going to work in this barn really hit home when it was time to clean out the barn.  It was very difficult to clean out with equipment, the siding or the feeder was always in jeopardy.  That meant a lot of hand work.  Okay strike that idea.  Deep bedding good.  Location and barn design bad.

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Armed with our pros and cons list we set out to rethink the deep bedding idea. What we needed was a simple shed that we were able to drive through from end to end for cleaning, like most modern dairy barns.  The most logical plan was to attach a shed to our hay barn where we store all our hay and bedding. With high eaves on the barn we could easily attach a shed that would be tall enough to accommodate the bedding buildup without the cows rubbing their backs on the rafters come spring.  Pole type construction simplified the design also, allowing us to utilize poles from our own timber to cut expenses.

By building the shed onto the hay barn we were going to be saving ourselves a lot of labor handling the hay.  But there is no free lunch, if you deep bed your livestock you are committed to moving that material at some point.  Basically you are trading one task for another.  That’s not a particularly earth shattering idea but you have to set priorities for your particular circumstances.  We wanted to eliminate the second bite syndrome by keeping the cows off of the pasture, it was more important that we take on some extra labor to feed and bed in the barn rather than let the cows have at the pasture.  Fertilizer and rest are the two most important things that your pasture needs.  How you provide those two and at the right times is dependent on many factors.


Some deep thoughts about deep bedding:

♥  Do your pastures need a rest during the rainy season?  That would depend on if you have stockpiled forage or not to provide a cushion to protect the pasture from being eaten into the ground even though you are providing hay.  Grazers are gonna graze.

♥  Do you have a barn area that would be suitable.  Maybe an existing shed that is attached to a barn already.  It could be just a decorating problem of moving the furniture so to speak.  Could the implements outside in the shed trade places with the livestock inside?  Just because a building was built specifically for one use doesn’t mean you can’t think outside the barn and switch things up. Things to watch out for are low sheds, even if the cows fit in with deep bedding, will your tractor?  Or are you committing yourself to hand work.  Compacted cow manure is awful to clean out of a barn, and the less carbonaceous the bedding material the harder it is to pick out.  Hay = hard compacted linoleum-like bedding, shavings = less compacted bedding but still difficult to clean out by hand.

♥  On our farm we have divided the deep bedding systems up by what the type of animal needs or can tolerate.  I don’t deep bed my dairy cow or her calf because a dairy cow’s udder is just too low and invites problems.  I also can manually clean up after a couple of head of cattle on a daily basis, any more than that is too much work.  But it’s not just a mathematical problem, we deep bed our flock of 20+ laying hens and do all that clean out by hand.

♥  Do you have the equipment to clean out the deep bedding?  We didn’t have to buy anything special, you may already have a 4WD tractor with a loader (teeth are handy for digging, a smooth bucket will not work) and a manure spreader.  Or you can rent equipment and write that off on your taxes. This is also a good place for bartering, maybe a half a hog for the use of a neighbors skidsteer for a week.  Keep your options open.

♥  Stack your functions.  Once we built the feeding shed we used it throughout the year for other projects.  We have housed pigs in there on the deep bedding in hopes they would turn the bedding into compost.  A note:  it takes a lot of pigs to do the job, if you’re in the pork business, and have forty extra feeder pigs at the right time go for it.  We found it easier to clean out the barn and raise less pigs in another setting.  We raised pullets in the off-season in that shed too.  That was not a free lunch either, pigs squirt out holes much smaller than a cow, and chickens need protecting from everything, so different fencing and overhead netting had to be added to make those projects work.

♥  Do you have an inexpensive source of carbon for bedding material?  A place to store it?  For the bedding to do its job of capturing the fertility your livestock puts out, the bedding must be dry.

♥  Besides the clean out phase of deep bedding, does your barn plan accommodate your type of hay?  Obviously if you are feeding round bales you would need to be more diligent with heavy equipment to add bales and elevate feeders as the bedding builds up.  You also would need a wider shed to feed rounds also to allow for every animal to be able to eat comfortably.


Every farm and its needs and inhabitants are different.  Hopefully if you’re thinking of deep bedding I have given you some food for thought and maybe given you some ideas why or why not to implement some type of deep bedding on your own farm.








38 Comments leave one →
  1. January 29, 2016 2:41 pm

    Such a different world we live in. Our cows don’t get bedding at all unless it’s forty below….but they do bed down on the brush in the river breaks. The calves get bedding but not like you talk about…they have windbreak to get behind when the wind is blowing. Our climate, although cold, is much dryer. We do have a shed for the bull calves when we get lots of snow days….it saves on the bedding. It’s just not feasible to put 100+ calves under one though.

    • January 29, 2016 3:06 pm

      I know, it is so different. I doubt you could imagine a sloppy wet mess for months. We didn’t use to bed much if at all, and the cows spent the winter in the trees when hay was plentiful and cheap, now all those fields that had hay grow houses, so we got to manage a little closer to the vest.

  2. christinalfrutiger permalink
    January 29, 2016 3:06 pm

    Even though we do not have a farm…just a couple goats and dogs, this is all so interesting to read about. Such a wealth of information that I’m sure so many farming people appreciate!

  3. quinn permalink
    January 29, 2016 3:14 pm

    It’s so helpful and interesting to see the whole decision-making process and how things have worked for you. I’m really enjoying these posts – thanks for writing in such detail 🙂

  4. January 29, 2016 3:40 pm

    I know you raise your rub bar. You must also raise the feed troughs? (And thank you once again for all this beautiful information!)

  5. January 29, 2016 5:02 pm

    I don’t do deep bedding in any of my pens for just that reason. I have to clean everything by hand. Shoveling deep bedding is so hard!! It is all I want cleaning the pens weekly or bi-weekly depending on the animal/grouping. A full winters worth would I think kill me!

    • January 29, 2016 5:31 pm

      Me too! Chickens maybe, cows never!

    • February 2, 2016 6:00 am

      I don’t even do it with the chickens! They are in an old cow pen that we put fencing around. It is in serious need of a re-model, but that isn’t the issue. It has a foot plus drop to get into it, I would not want to pick that stuff up out of it, it is hard to clean on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. We did that and the turkeys yesterday and holy heck it took us most of the day.

  6. January 29, 2016 5:50 pm

    This isn’t strictly relevant to this post, but I just wanted you to know I dreamed about tall grass last night and I’m pretty sure it’s your fault. 🙂

  7. January 29, 2016 7:52 pm

    We set up a “cow buffet”: the bales are delivered to a fenced in area and throughout the winter the animals help themselves (electric wire blocks off bales and is moved periodically). We only have a few animals, so this works really well for us. No more struggling to pull layers off a frozen bale (northern Alberta – winter lasts from November to March), and in the summer I just close the gate to the buffet area… The plan this year is to grow potatoes and squash in the leftovers. 🙂

    The barn gets layers of waste hay added repeatedly over the winter, enough to keep it dry at the surface. Come summer, I open the doors and keep the animals out until it dries up then pitch the mess out to the yard where the skidsteer can get to it.

    It’s taken a long time to figure this out, it certainly is much less work than feeding by hand every day!

  8. January 30, 2016 6:09 am

    I like the underlying message in your post – big farm or small farm – it’s all about adaptability and making changes that work for the animals you have (as well as saving your back). When I had goats I switched to deep bedding and stopped losing kids in kidding season – but a lot of back breaking work come spring. We’ve also used pigs to loosen compacted bedding – but they never do the whole job for you. We’ve no equipment – but a neighbor down the road will trade for eggs and bring his big tractor to straighten out the place. We’ve had many neighbors offer to ‘fix’ our small stubbly field – but we have drafts – and they gain weight at an alarming rate on good pasture – I prefer to control their intake by feeding hay year round and they still have enough to ‘graze’. We’ve been using the drafts to pull logs from the bush as we open it up to the sun some – and in the next year or so will likely use them to work the small cow pasture to turn it over and improve that – but like you – I hesitate to fool with the land itself. Still thinking on that part 🙂

  9. Carrie permalink
    January 30, 2016 10:54 am

    Nita, how deep a bedding pack do you start with for both cows and hens? Listening to Joel Salatin on the I’net the other day he said a minimum of 8″ (he was talking poultry). That was a light bulb moment for me because the deep bedding for my hens has not worked well this winter. Not starting with deep enough straw to allow a ‘working’ core to build up quickly is probably one reason; the other is rain, rain and more rain on top of a clay pan.

    Your chickens are in a much drier environment than mine but do you still ‘start deep’? And also with cows?

    • January 30, 2016 11:20 am

      Carrie, usually about a 6″ for the hens and at least 12″ for the cows. The difference being again, labor. I have to haul the goods for the chickens by hand with a wheelbarrow, and the cows get the tractor with bucket loader treatment. Both are in the dry, outside is a nightmare as it rains here a lot. Then we add daily because we are using straw for the bulk of the bedding. If we had a higher carbon material like unlimited wood chips or shavings we could get by with adding material less often.

      • Carrie permalink
        January 30, 2016 12:36 pm

        Interesting, thanks. I’ll start with a lot more next time; and I’m working on making the site drier but that won’t be done in a day!

  10. Bee permalink
    January 30, 2016 12:01 pm

    Nita, some questions to clarify, please:
    About how much do you allow per cow in terms of square feet? And I know you have calves and beefers in there as well, so is the amount of floor space the same for the younger stock?
    Are the cows shut up under cover for the entire time you’re feeding or do you also have a sacrifice area next to the deep bedding area?
    It sounds as though you’ve tried both straw and shavings — do you have a preference in terms of the absorptive qualities and finished product or is your choice of bedding made strictly for economics?
    What triggers the change from feeding outside in the pasture to moving them inside?

    Thanks in advance!

    • January 30, 2016 3:25 pm

      Bee, I think it’s recommended to have about 30 square feet per cow, more for total confinement. We have about 40 square feet per animal and we have cows, long yearlings and calves in the mix, they can go outside in to a sacrifice area, which is not all that cool, with a winter like this, it is mud. It’s their choice though where they want to spend their time. Once that bedding starts heating up though and it gets warmer, they don’t care for that 115 degree bedding pack. Square footage planning for any animal needs to be more than just math, long and skinny doesn’t work as well as square, although square is not that easy with a shed, but you have to avoid pinch points because of the pecking order and the battle axe syndrome. As wide as possible while still making a decent roof pitch is the name of the game.

      Strictly economics and storage. Straw is much easier to handle and the price of shavings is astronomical. Used to be cheap, when they burned it at the mills. Shavings would be a luxury item, that I would buy in a heartbeat if I could afford them. I guess I better buy that lottery ticket 😉 HD and I have the perfect lottery barn plan, although we differ on a few items and would probably compromise and do it my way 😉

      Hmmm, bringing them in? Apathy on my part usually plays a role, it’s pretty easy to haul the feed out, but at a certain point they will impact the pasture too much. So if the grass starts to grow, they have to come off. I have never been able to keep half the pasture in stockpile since we have never been without cows. When someone moves to a farm with ample pasture and starts out with a few cows, it’s pretty easy (unless they are overstocked) to have plenty of ground to stockpile. Just my .02 from seeing what some folks I know starting out have been able to do. They buy 40 acres, move in, add 5 – 10 cows and if they are rotationally grazing they never get ahead of the grass. That has not been my case, as I haven’t wanted to get rid of cows and start over after a year of total rest. Nor do I want to move my cows somewhere else for a season to make that work. Not that there aren’t a lot of vacant pastures within 10 miles of me that need some animal impact and natural fertilizer.

  11. Tracy permalink
    January 31, 2016 5:19 am

    So nice to see you’re back posting. I’ve missed you greatly.

  12. Ali permalink
    January 31, 2016 5:17 pm

    This is totally off topic but I have a quick question. I remember a blog post you did that listed the seed companies you order from. I have searched and can’t find the post. Could you possibly link me to it here? I know one was territorial and we order from them as well. But I would like some more options:) You can never have too many seed catalogs to read on a cold day!

    • February 1, 2016 12:55 pm

      Ali, instead of searching, because I think I have changed it a little, I’ll just list them for you. Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Fedco Seeds, Uprising Seeds, Wild Garden Seeds, Adaptive Seeds, High Mowing Seeds, Turtle Tree, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Osborne Seed Co., and probably others I can’t remember. If I had to pick one it would be Johnny’s, hands down the seeds I have had the best luck with over the years.

      I agree, one can never have enough seed catalogs to look at. I keep ones I don’t even buy from just because of the photos!

      • Bee permalink
        February 1, 2016 1:27 pm

        Ali, if I could add my two cents: some of the smaller companies that I’ve also found to be good ones are Annie’s Victory Seeds, Bountiful Gardens and the Sustainable Seed Company. Baker Creek has some really great stuff, too, although they’re a little on the high end as far as price.

        • February 1, 2016 3:02 pm

          I’m adding Fruition Seeds, and Floret Seeds also. New ones to me this year.

      • Ali permalink
        February 1, 2016 6:14 pm

        Thank you for all the great options MOH and thank you to Bee as well! Some I’ve heard of and most I haven’t. Looks like I’ve got plenty of catalogs to request this evening. I know it’s not very eco but I hate online catalogs! I prefer the paper in my hands.

  13. roscoe permalink
    February 1, 2016 10:23 am

    I want to thank you so much for your blog. I know you don’t post in this milieu as often any more, and that is really fine, I can totally understand why. I enjoy all your posts and always learn so much from them. I manage a farmers market and feel that I’m just starting to be up to speed on some of the practices that it’s important for me to understand, and I have YOU to thank mostly for that! Your writing is personable and excellent, I try to do what you do for me when I’m working at the market: interpret for someone who can’t possibly know what a thing is about the things they need to hear to understand that thing. This post is an excellent example in that I wasn’t even sure what deep bedding was until I read this and studied the photos. Now of course, I feel I too am an expert. Just kidding! I’m so grateful to you for the time you take to help me understand what you do so that I can be a better advocate for good honest food up here in Toronto.

    Blessings. Cookie Roscoe

    cookie roscoe farmers market manager

    *The Stop began over 30 years ago as one of North America’s first food banks, and has grown into a vibrant community centre, using food as a gateway to addressing many issues, including poverty, the environment, social isolation, and health in one of Toronto’s lowest-income neighbourhoods. The Stop’s mission is to increase access to healthy food in a manner that maintains dignity, builds community and challenges inequality. *

    On Fri, Jan 29, 2016 at 4:58 PM, Throwback at Trapper Creek wrote:

    > matronofhusbandry posted: ” Well, that depends. I can only write about > what works and doesn’t work for us. Possibly a better way to look at it is > the why? Why deep bed in the first place? The reason we decided to > implement deep bedding was twofold. We needed to jump start f” >

  14. February 2, 2016 10:57 am

    With regard to clean out, how deep do you let it go for the chickens before you clean out and start again? I have the idea you keep them in the hoophouse year round?

    • February 2, 2016 1:59 pm

      Yes, they are in the hoophouse year round, but I regularly take out a lot of material for planting, side dressing as the growing season goes, and I totally clean it out in August, because I need to rest it and move a new batch of pullets in. That whole system is a post by itself 🙂

      • Carrie permalink
        February 3, 2016 1:29 am

        ” That whole system is a post by itself ” – oh goody! Looking forward.. 🙂 🙂

  15. February 3, 2016 3:10 pm

    Excellent post and explanations. I used deep bedding in an outdoor setting bu putting round bales on end and the cattle lay around them, then add another round bale in end. Warm for the cattle and great to rot the bedding to spread. We no longer have cows but in the colder weather used hay pack for the chickens, they loved it. Lower numbers of Chickens and a well aired coop make it work. Not drafty but with air. The bedding is spreading on the garden well and is a good mix of manure and fiber.

  16. February 10, 2016 2:10 pm

    Ha Ha, she’s back, and on a tear! I have lots to learn in this department, and am currently feeding out some less than stellar hay (believe me, if the mustang won’t eat it, it must have no food value). And my pastures really took a hit last summer with the long hot season. But-just getting started on my 10 thousand hours of learning curve on this and a thousand other related subjects. And we will never make our own hay-at least not if I want to stay married. And I do. 😉

    • February 10, 2016 4:31 pm

      Spudlust, I hear you on the marriage thing, deals have been made 😉 Hay is hard, buying hay is hard. Besides the skillset that has left the building with most folks being what 2 or 3 generations away from farming now? The land is poor too, with the livestock farms being gone. No shit, no hay. Lots and lots of baled carbon though, which in itself isn’t bad. It’s only a waste if you can’t use it somehow. I think the worst actual waste of hay comes with big bale feeders and the mudholes you see around them, otherwise, if you can spread the feeding around, you are getting some value besides just feed.

  17. February 12, 2016 6:48 pm

    Roscoe said everything I was thinking.👍

  18. Heather permalink
    February 15, 2016 3:54 pm

    This was a great follow up post to your hay post. I used to live in a balmy region of British columbia with quite a bit of rain. Bale grazing would have been a joke (it would have been so wrecked and moldy), deep bedding worked because there wasn’t deep deep freezes etc.

    Then I moved to an arid cold climate. And got Salatin books and was excited. Til I realized that pigs are born in May in our cold climate and can’t dig through 6 feet of compacted “deep bedding” that we get after 6-7 months bedding in winter. LOL THat was more work than I ever care to repeat in my entire life.

    Deep bedding here takes 2 years to get going properly (it is so cold there is no breaking down for a year), and a 13 foot barn roof will see me touching it easily close to spring (and I am only 5’4). . . So I think we all have to adapt to our situations. I actually do not clean out my chicken coop (GASP), I bed about 12 inches, add more straw as the chickens poop all winter, then it breaks down over summer with the heat and develops a nice base for the next year. For some odd reason, it NEVER builds up more than 18 inches in winter. Then during the summer it sinks and settles and is once again about 4 inches deep. Next fall we start “deep bedding” again and then by next year it is 4 inches deep (we have a railroad tie base and it never goes above that). After 6 years in one location it is still 4 inches deep in the summer. Absolutely weird to me, but we have no need for that much extra manure because we have to bed cattle for so many months that we have more manure than we can spread in gardens and on our 15 acres.

    The one year I decided to add the chicken bedding to the orchard and put the pigs in and pigs CAN dig up the chicken house in about 1 day :).

    • February 16, 2016 6:53 pm

      Heather, for the cows, did you bury corn in the bedding layers, to give the pigs something to root for?

    • February 17, 2016 5:59 am

      Heather, we had the same experience with the pigs, it’s hard to do with a few pigs, I think Salatin puts 40 + in a shed a little bigger than ours. When we tried the whole corn layering, the cows tried to find the corn…not a good idea. I have no desire to raise 40 pigs to turn the bedding, sounds good in theory but you have to be in the pork business to make it work.

      I am always amazed how fast the bedding shrinks with the chickens working it daily, but anymore I use almost all of it because it is so easy to move being so light and ready to use compared to the cow bedding which ends up on the hay fields. I do clean mine out leaving a bit for inoculation because I get new chickens each year, so I want to give the space a break in between flocks.

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