Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Deep bedding revisited

On December 23 I posted about using deep bedding for my cows this winter. I first became aware of the term and the specific ideas of this method through Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm in his book $alad Bar Beef. Joel houses his cattle in a shed over winter, feeding them there rather than in the pasture as is common in his area of Virginia and this area of Kentucky (many areas, in fact). In order to utilize the 2,500 or more pounds per day of nutritionally-rich excretions from his cows back ends, Joel spreads carbon-rich bedding every day or so. This provides a dry, comfortable place for the cows to spend the winter. There are benefits for the cows health associated with using his deep bedding method.

By the time the cows are ready to move back out on pasture in the spring, the bedding, loaded with nutrient rich cow dung and urine, may be up to four feet deep. Rather than use mechanical means to loosen and aerate this bedding, Joel employs pigs to root it up which loosens and aerates it. The pigs work for grain which has been incorporated into the bedding during the winter. The grain sprouts in the bedding and provides the pigs with motivation to root up the bedding because it tastes good to them. The end result is loose, aerated compost that only needs to be handled once as it is loaded into the spreader and spread on the fields. You can read an article from the 1990s written about Joel Salatin’s pigerators here.


Many others also use a deep bedding system with their cows. One of the blogs I regularly read is Throwback at Trapper Creek. The author, Matronofhusbandry, writes about her and her family’s homesteading adventure in the Northwest. They use management intensive rotational grazing – moving their cows to a new paddock everyday – and deep bedding in the barn during the winter. She has a love for composted animal manure because of the great benefits it provides for the soil and plants. You can read a couple of posts written by Matronofhusbandry on the following links: Sacrificing the sacrifice area and Dung love.

After my previous post on deep bedding, a friend expressed concern that such a system would constitute a fire danger much like wet hay in a barn does. I’ve searched for any correlation between deep bedding and a risk of barn fire to no avail. If anyone has some information on such a risk, I’m interested in hearing/reading it. I don’t see it as a risk, though, based upon my research and experience, but I’m curious to hear from others about it.

I’ve actually done deep bedding with animals before. That was with goats, and it wasn’t as intentional as it is this year. I just kept adding enough bedding on the floor so that the goats weren’t in mess, and then I dug out the accumulated and packed (can you say very dense) bedding in the spring or early summer. It’s amazing how stuck together it would get. At the bottom of the layer, the material was mostly broken down/composted. The density of the pack prevented any oxygen from being available within the bedding which would be necessary for combustion to occur.

I’ve seen barns in which no bedding appeared to have been put down for the animals. Those were horrible situations and resulted in a lot more problems for the animals. I’ve seen goats who had chronic foot rot problems that when moved to a barn with ample bedding had no more problems. Keeping animals warm, dry, and clean is important. It’s very difficult to provide ideal conditions for the animals without good bedding. If you don’t incorporate enough carbonaceous material into the bedding, much of the valuable nutrients are lost. If you barn/bedding area smells bad, you’re wasting the good stuff. Liquid manure systems don’t stabilize the nitrogen and other valuable nutrients in the manure let alone the problems for the animals associated with a concrete floor (and the mechanical requirements for such a system).

Last year with my cows, I kept bedding on the floor for them, but I didn’t let it accumulate with their mess. I forked the cow pies and wet bedding out into a pile every day. The lack of depth in the bedding actually created more mess for the cows than what I’ve been doing so far this winter. I add fresh bedding every day, usually in the morning. This gives the cows a nice dry bed that is well insulated from the ground. They’re cows, so they still end up laying down in some of their mess (they don’t care that they’re standing in their bed when they drop a load) that was added after the fresh bedding, but it seems like overall they have a much better bed to be in. I’m also excited about the nutrient rich material that is being collected.

So far, the bedding for my cows is maybe about a foot thick. The carbon material I spread for bedding is what I already have. So, I’m not spending money on bedding. I’ll see what I can accumulate for next year. The concept behind the deep bedding method makes a lot of sense, and others’ experiences with it validate its utility.

Here are a couple of photos of cows on deep bedding I found online (not my cows) – the second photo looks more like the bedding in my barn:



I think the concern of fire is related to the bedding heating up significantly when it starts to compost in the spring.

The way I understand it, the bedding will be in an anaerobic state and 'warm' during the winter (like an ordinary compost pile that isn't turned), then when the pigs start introducing oxygen to the bedding with their rooting it will enter an aerobic state and start to really heat up. But, the constant rooting of the pigs would keep the bedding at a constant temperature and prevent any 'hot-spots' from developing and starting a fire.


Thanks for your comment, Rich. I tend to agree with you. My experience tells me that although the anaerobic environment in the bedding pack can cause it to warm up some, the heat generated (especially in absence of oxygen) will be unable to create a fire. Aerobic composting, on the other hand, can/does get quite hot. The pigs' rooting should prevent hot spots as they aerate the bedding in search of food.

Kentucky Bedding

Its awesome!Attractive post for deep bedding.

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