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Are Cows Telling You Something About Your Compost-bedded Pack Barn Management?

Figure 1.

Compost-bedded pack barns have become a popular system for housing dairy cattle. These barns consist of an open area without stalls that allows free movement of the cows around the barn, therefore providing cow comfort. To ensure cow comfort, different bedding materials can be used in compost- bedded pack barns. The most common bedding materials are wood shavings or sawdust, although wheat or rye straw can also be used. For the latter, however, bedding management can become more challenging.

Given that manure from the cows is mixed with the bedding material, the compostbedded pack barn system is considered a “living system” with a heavy load of environmental pathogens that may increase the incidence of mastitis. To minimize the incidence of mastitis, it is critical to ensure the bedding material is as dry as possible. This is accomplished through aeration of the bedding material, which can be done using a rototiller, a vertical plow or chisel, or any other tool combining these actions. Through the frequent and proper aeration, heat production from microbial activity will be maximized and water will evaporate more easily. This will result in much cleaner cows.

Even though one of the goals of the system is to ensure cow comfort, it has been quite common for me to observe unusual behavior when visiting farms with compost-bedded pack barns. This unusual behavior typically includes standing cows in the feeding alleys (despite the presence of feed) or cows standing in front of the compost-bedded area.

My interpretation of this unusual behavior is that cows are telling us something about the management of the bedding material. If cows avoid walking and laying down on the bedding, then it is fair to assume there may be something wrong with the bedding. My best recommendation is for one to walk around the barn and experience the footing. When you do so, are you walking on an irregular surface full of holes and hard bumps? (Figure 1.) Are you noticing tracks of tractor wheels on the ground? Are you stepping on saturated spots? Most importantly, are you uneasy when walking around your compost-bedded pack barn? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then very likely you are having trouble managing your compost-bedded pack barn. And if you are hesitant to walk around, then the cows might be as well.

Finding a problem is always easier than finding solutions. So, what should managers do after finding cows are not comfortable in the compost-bedded pack barn? Even though this is extremely hard (but not impossible) to accomplish, sometimes the best answer is to start all over from scratch. This may mean emptying the barn and placing fresh bedding material. After this, maintaining good aeration will become critical to maintain a dry, warm, and fluffy bedding that ensures a comfortable.

Source: May Virginia Dairy Pipeline, 

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