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Feeding Shed Particulars

January 30, 2017


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.

April 2016

April 2016

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.

01-02-14 (54)
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.

Deep doodoo - four feet to be exact

Deep doodoo – four feet to be exact

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.

Deep bedding 2016

Deep bedding 2016

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.


17 Comments leave one →
  1. Jay permalink
    January 30, 2017 5:39 pm

    When I saw the new post on the 28th after your hiatus from blogging I smiled big time. Now after reading this post I’m as giddy as a10yr old boy with a new slingshot. (Just dated myself) Thanks for this. Just bought a 40 acre farm in Wisconsin cold country and reading this info is wonderful and real. You are a great teacher with a wealth of experience and to say I appreciate these blogs is a vast understatement. It’s like reading a how to book being written day by day.

  2. Veronica permalink
    January 30, 2017 6:34 pm

    Hello there. First I would like to say that I have been enjoying reading your blog for years now, I appreciate all the in depth information you provide. I recently moved to Veneta, Oregon and wondered about the beef you sell. I believe if you only sell locally it may be too far for me, but is your beef sold throughout the state? If so, how would I find out about availability and pricing? thank you in advance for your time.

  3. January 30, 2017 6:37 pm

    Another great post! Thanks!

  4. January 31, 2017 3:39 am

    Another keeper post! For me the photos are crucial to telling the story. I am glad you are back posting!

  5. Bee permalink
    January 31, 2017 5:25 am

    Nita, for the smaller operator, what about mixing stock in the feeding shed? I would imagine that some of the folks who follow you have a lot less land and fewer critters. From a labor/space standpoint, they might be considering a single, multi-species feed shed. For example, if you have a couple of beefers and a horse or two, can you run them together?

    • January 31, 2017 6:15 am

      Bee, maybe cows and sheep or goats but I would never combine horses and cows. It’s a horse’s nature to just run or worry cows, not to mention the different feed requirements for both. I’ve pastured them together before, but even my geriatric Belgians would herd the cows constantly, and when one stomped a newborn calf, I said no more. Separate pastures and loafing sheds. However,Ruthless kept her quarter horses in stalls made from panels in the loafing shed but she didn’t deep bed that portion.

      • January 31, 2017 6:52 am

        My horses are confined to a track around the outside of the pasture, while the cows are in the middle. They have access to the same loading shed, but different ends that are separate. Yeah the horses chase the cows off and eat their alfalfa if they are together, so I don’t allow that. It’s just that they share the loafing shed separated by panels. Hope that makes sense. I’ll try bedding the cows side. Thanks!!

        • January 31, 2017 7:13 am

          That’s what we did. How’s the track thing working? I have a friend that wants to try it, but they are worried the horses will just churn it up. In my limited experience horses hooves really cut the soil up compared to cows.

  6. January 31, 2017 6:48 am

    Thank you for posting this! Looking forward to planning and redesigning my feed shed this spring!

  7. Ali permalink
    January 31, 2017 6:18 pm

    Good to see your blog active again. I’ve missed reading your pearls of wisdom pertaining to all things farming and homesteading. Welcome back!

  8. February 1, 2017 9:59 pm

    I hear what you are saying about hay on the floor and if we had the choice I would take your advice. As you say, each of us need to work out how to make it work best. We have alpacas and the way we use the hay is to put a couple of bales down on the floor first but then mainly it is topped up with hay that has been picked through by the alpacas – maybe they are fussier eaters than the cows. That way the choice hay is always in the feeders and less temptation to eat off the floor. Then again with alpacas it is easier to remove accumulated poo pellets than cow pancakes I imagine. Really I suppose we are using a system more akin to your house cow than deep bedding. We clean out by hand twice a year, but the sheds are small

  9. February 6, 2017 9:20 am

    First time in your very nice blog!!! Love reading this post and the pictures you put are so beautiful. Thanks for sharing:)

  10. Barb in CA permalink
    February 6, 2017 6:48 pm

    I know you also deep bed your laying hens. And you do not use machinery in there to clean it out? Do you make a compost pile with it or does it all go straight into the garden beds? I’m really trying to get the fine points of composting finessed. Thanks.

    • February 6, 2017 9:08 pm

      Barb, the chicken deep bedding is light, and I can do that by hand. I almost use it exclusively for side dressing during the growing season, it is so broken down I just use it straight out of the hen house. The few times I have had to put it on the compost pile, I just about cry thinking that it’s getting lost to the pasture when it such an easy material to use, compared to the heavy cow manure compost 😦

  11. February 8, 2017 4:27 am

    We use the same method in our goat shed and clean out the bedding with the tractor bucket early in the spring. But we’ve always used hay as the deep bedding, feeding them on top of the hay they wasted previously. I’ve never worried that they might end up eating bad hay that way. In our case it’s goats, not cattle, but you have me worried about it now. Gonna have to look into this more (and dreading the thought of having to buy straw!)

    In our main pasture we don’t use a shed like that, but rather have barn stalls. MUCH more difficult to clean out. I have to do it by pitchfork. It’s hard work and takes a long time. With the run in shed/tractor bucket method it’s a snap.

    So glad to see you blogging again!

    • February 8, 2017 9:32 am

      Bill, not sure about goats, I do know that the rule for feeding goats or grazing them is that they prefer to eat above their knees, and cows should eat with their heads down. Do you have access to free utility crew chips? We have mostly conifers here so the free chips are not so good for garden amendments. But if we had more deciduous trees I would be on that in a heartbeat. Straw is the lesser of all the evils. Finding no-spray straw is the conundrum though because the herbicides carry through the compost.

      Blogging is an interesting pastime,for sure. I found when I wasn’t blogging I wasn’t reading blogs either, so it feels kinds of nice to get back into the swing of things.

  12. Heather permalink
    February 12, 2017 10:11 am

    Good post there! I think I am Joe Blow, and I have lived in your climate also, and talk about a different set of challenges due to the moisture and not really frozen ground.

    We have extreme cold, but also lowland and moisture all spring which is a huge challenge – can’t get in to our sacrifice area to feed round bales as we sink to China in spring, but we can bale graze from November to March. But the cost to feed is a lot higher because of the waste.

    My BIL only 9 miles north of me has to do things differently because his land is nothing like mine. A person just has to remember to think outside the box and you excel at that!!

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