Feeding Shed Particulars
Since we’re in the thick of the winter feeding period, this is as good a time as any to talk about the whys and hows of deep bedding. And believe me I have a shit ton of thoughts about this system.
WHY: For many years we fed our cows outside by hauling the feed to them and feeding on clean ground (where we hadn’t fed yet) and by far that is the simplest way to feed cattle in winter. Throw the hay in pickup and drive along dropping hay. I used to do this by myself, put the truck in low-range, first gear, and head for an open spot, get out of the cab and climb in the back. I am no longer nimble enough to do this by myself. So this job requires two people, or one if you’re willing to pack the bales and spread them by hand. Feeding outside does distribute the manure and leftover hay well (yeah! fertilizer and re-seeding), but there is a price for convenience, lots of vehicle and animal impact on wet soil. And the worst in my opinion is that the cattle are constantly nipping at the plants. Of course I am talking about non-brittle Western Oregon, the ground doesn’t freeze much at all, and we rarely have snow cover to protect the pasture. Even though the grass isn’t growing this would be considered over-grazing and if you consider over-grazing costs you 30% of your pasture growth the following growing season, that is a sobering thought. Feeding outside works great in brittle or cold areas, but that is not my farm’s makeup. I think sadly that the biggest thing missing these days in the information era of farming is the ability to discern. Joe Blow is bale grazing in the North Dakota prairie and it seems to work, so Nita in Western Oregon thinks, hey I need to do that… well, one size does not fit all. Each farm and each farmer is different, do your homework.
These days we do a little of both. The first few years with the feeding shed, we strictly kept the cows in a small sacrifice area and didn’t allow them access to the pasture at all in the winter. I really didn’t like that (and the cows didn’t either.) it was just too muddy. Our farm lies on both sides of a county road, and it is difficult due to traffic to rotate through all the pastures during the grazing season. So the pasture in the zone one area is always reserved for hay and the house cow. Not much true animal impact and only one use, hay. It’s good to change things up in the rotational grazing world, different species or different uses, and the timing of those uses bring in more diversity. One use repeated the same time every year stalls the landscape and adapts the plants there to that one use. It’s always good to mix things up. So with that in mind, we decided to allow the cattle into the hay-field/pasture in the off-season while still feeding and bedding in the feeding shed. Our thinking was that the cattle using the pasture for a while in the off-season would get some much-needed disturbance going. We also needed them as bushwhacker supremes to work on the hay-field edges as the brush was starting to encroach due to just cutting hay each year in that pasture. Not only do cattle like to browse to balance their diet, they love to itch and scratch on brush. A small thicket can be destroyed by cattle if that is what you want. So these days, when we are done with the rotation of stockpiled forage and need to start feeding hay we move the cows across the road and onto the pasture in the photo above which is adjacent to the hay barn and feeding shed. We allow access to the pasture during the winter months if there is no grass growth, but once we start to see the tiniest bit of new green (usually about the first or second week of March) we restrict the cattle to a sacrifice area. A sacrifice area is an area that basically you’re okay trashing in order to save an area of pasture you don’t want to trash.
I feel it’s only to fair to mention that no matter how you choose to feed your livestock there is no free lunch, it’s all work, just different work at different times. Setting up a deep bedding system is not a time-saving practice, it is a on-farm fertility capture practice. Basically protecting high value manure and urine from being wasted during the wet months when it will just degrade in the weather and possibly runoff. Proper manure handling makes economic and ecological sense.
HOW: The term deep bedding simply means allowing bedding to build up during the winter months. A marriage of manure, urine and carbon that keeps the cattle clean and comfortable since it heats up as the bedding pack builds, and keeps manure odors at bay. We use straw, but any carbon material that you can easily procure and store is fine. Low carbon materials like straw can’t absorb as much moisture as high carbon materials like sawdust, so we need to bed almost daily. If you have access to, or want to spend the money wood chips, sawdust or shavings work well and since the carbon content is higher you won’t need to add bedding as often.
Also just because you have barn and animals doesn’t mean that deep bedding is a good fit. The barn design is very important. We built this barn in the photo above exactly like the barn that was here before. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I love this barn, but one season of deep bedding and we realized that we were in danger of ruining our wood siding with bedding buildup, and it was a bugger to clean out. Scratch that idea.
Like most things farmstead related, the beginning and the daily doing is pretty easy. It’s the harvesting and processing that will kill you. Most crops are pretty innocent as seeds or starts but when ten pounds of seed potatoes turns into one hundred pounds that need digging, packing and storing it’s a whole other ballgame. Likewise with a deep bedded manure pack that you and the cows work on a daily basis. You put in the bedding, the cows add their manure and urine and then proceed to compact the material into a nice tidy chunk of material that is hard to clean out without equipment. And a good equipment operator. Because this is a task that cannot be done by hand labor, you need to take into consideration the best way for equipment access. We built this shed exactly the opposite way we did on the other barn. Open entrances on the ends instead of the side. Cows are flexible like that, tractors are not. The shed is much easier to clean when you can drive straight through. Confession time here too, I have never cleaned out this deep bedding, either my husband does it, or my daughter, my hat is off to them, it is a big job and takes some finessing with the equipment.
A few key points:
♥ Don’t deep bed if you don’t want to use equipment to clean out the barn. You don’t have to own a tractor, but you do need to be able to borrow or rent the necessary equipment to do the spring clean out. The task is just too great to manage by hand unless you only have one cow or at most two. And personally I wouldn’t recommend deep bedding for dairy cows just because of udder cleanliness issues.
♥ Using pigs to loosen the deep bedding before clean out works too, you just need to be prepared to have about 25 feeder pigs on hand when you turn the cows out. We just weren’t that into selling pork and had disappointing results with a handful of porkers.
♥ Deep bedding will require some cash outlay to obtain carbon for bedding. Plus you need a place to store the bedding to keep it dry. One way to offset this in your mind is to think of this as your fertilizer expenditure.
♥ Don’t be tempted to use hay as bedding because the whole idea is to provide a clean, manure free space for your stock to eat. Bedding should be unpalatable, in my opinion. Cows by instinct are able to avoid soiled bedding when they eat, but calves don’t always have their repugnance zones established and may eat soiled bedding and pick up parasites. It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. DON’T FEED YOUR CATTLE HAY ON THE BARN FLOOR despite what you see on the internet.
♥ Allow for a feeder in your design plan, see previous note. Feeder design depends on your hay supply. We use manufactured feeder panels that the cattle have to put their heads through in order to eat. We use small square bales so this works for us, if you buy in hay you’re at the mercy of the hay seller, it may be round bales, or large squares. We designed our feeder panel to raise and lower to accommodate bedding depth, so take that into consideration too.
♥ If possible have your feeding shed next to your hay and bedding storage. We just added a shed to the side of the hay barn so the hay is right where we need it.
Every farm is different so take all these ideas and personal thoughts with a grain of salt when reading this post, what works for me, may not work the best with what you have to work with. Just my two cents.