Is Deep Bedding for You?
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.
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.
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.