Farmers look to straw alternatives

FARMERS are being forced to make use of a range of alternative bedding options this winter as the price of straw, particularly wheat straw, continues to rise.

The price increase, while also impacting on parts of England and Wales, has been felt particularly hard in Scotland, where the quantity and quality of straw gathered over the summer was wellbelow average.

The problem was further exacerbated as many Scottish farmers used up their straw stocks during the winter freeze of 2009/10.

Quality Meat Scotland has produced an advice booklet (see panel) to help farmers optimise bedding and consider the wide range of alternative products available to livestock producers.

According to Scottish Agricultural College beef specialist, Ian Pritchard, who researched the content for the booklet with Dr Basil Lowman and Dr John Vipond, it is well worth farmers putting some thought into how they use bedding most efficiently.

“Some of the tips in the booklet may seem like common sense, but too often simple steps which can produce big benefits are overlooked,” says Ian Pritchard, whose booklet flags up a number of alternative bedding products.

“Some of these alternative materials, such as oilseed rape straw, sawdust and woodchips have been used for a number of years.

Others, such as canary reed grass and miscanthus, are new bedding materials,” he says.

Bedding alternatives to straw

  • Rape, bean and pea haulm/straw: These have excellent physical structure and drainage characteristics. It may look like an uncomfortable bed, but it is keeps clean and has good drainage. Put 60cm (2ft) deep at the bottom of the cattle housing and cover with straw over the top to reduce the usage of straw by about 30 per cent, says SAC.
  • Oatfeed: This absorbent bedding is a co-product from the human porridge and oat milling industry. It can be bought in bulk and delivered all year round, but as it is edible, it must not be used with high-performing livestock.
  • Canary Reed Grass: This is a perennial crop with good yields and similar absorptive capacity to straw when dry. Welsh trials showed the product does not affect the performance of livestock and is a good alternative to straw on marginal land.
  • Elephant grass (Miscanthus): This is another perennial crop, used increasingly as biomass for renewableenergy projects. Yields are good (10-20t/ha) and it can be used for bedding.
  • Peat: This has been used by farmers for generations especially in the West Coast of Ireland. It is not considered ‘green’, however, given it takes hundreds of years to regenerate. An advantage is that it absorbs up to four times more moisture than straw.
  • Lime: Best when mixed with straw, it can be beneficial when used in cubicles to reduce bacterial numbers and mastitis. It is also beneficial to ewes with a foot rot problem, says SAC.
  • Sand: This is beneficial when used in cubicles and has been shown to reduce mastitis cell counts. Calving on sand is not recommended.
  • Plasterboard: Because plasterboard is being recycled rather than pushed into landfill, it is becoming increasingly available to farmers. Its big advantage is its alkaline characteristic, which makes it a great fertiliser when cleared from the barn.
  • Paper: Dry paper waste can be cheap, but has poor drainage and limited absorption and bacteria can build up quickly.
  • Sawdust: Sawdust from untreated wood is good but drainage, while initially very good, will become poor.
  • Woodchips: Small woodchips should be avoided as cattle are likely to get dirty, but large woodchips (up to fist size) are a good alternative to straw. Woodchips will last longer than straw without a need to add new layers.

Source: Quality Meat Scotland


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