Stall bedding materials have become increasingly expensive and difficult to find. This situation has prompted many dairy producers to search for more feasible alternatives such as sand or recycled manure solids.
While some producers still say sand is the ideal bedding for cows, others say it is too hard on the moving parts of equipment.
Steve and Jim Hasel said switching from sand to organic bedding has eliminated the need to remove sand settlings and solids from the bottom of the manure pit. That provides a labor savings, but they also said the greatest benefit is that the cows love the organic bedding.
This fourth generation family farm is a partnership between brothers James and Steve Hasel. Steve's wife, Janice, is also a huge part of the operation, taking care of the farm's accounting, seeking information and making recommendations about anything that will improve the farm's efficiency.
Two of Steve and Jan's children, Nick Hasel and Heather Schuld, work on the farm, as well as Jim's son, Matt. The younger generation brings with them ideas from off-farm experiences, and the entire family has a willingness to try new things to improve cow comfort and efficiency.
While some farmers have concerns about udder health when using recycled manure solids, the Hasels said their somatic cell count did not change when they made the switch.
Steve believes cow preparation at milking time, sanitation of milking equipment, cow hygiene, adequate dry cow housing and bedding and stall management all have a role in controlling somatic cell count.
"This is actually drier than sand," he said. "Our somatic cell count has remained the same (150,000) after switching from sand to this material."
A University of Minnesota survey found that, surprisingly, the type of manure solids used — digested, raw or composted — had no association with SCC. University of Minnesota-Extension dairy scientist Marcia Endres reported that while some find that surprising, the study found that although coliform counts in fresh bedding were zero for composted solids, 1100 cfu/mL for digested solids and 16,000 cfu/mL for raw solids, once the materials were used in the stalls, coliform counts were similar for all three bedding types.
One might also expect that cows on organic solids would not be as clean as those on sand. The Minnesota study, and the experiences of the Hasel family, found cows are just as clean (even cleaner) than they were on sand.
Humidity could be an issue with organic bedding, but the Hasels have taken steps to limit humidity in their barn.
Despite the presence of the family's 370 milk cows and bred heifers, the air in the barn is fresh and comfortable.
One end of the barn is covered with huge fans that move air during hot and cold periods. When the fans are in use, they close the curtain sides of the barn, creating tunnel ventilation that keeps cows cool and comfortable and removes humidity..
In humid weather, they sprinkle hydrated lime on the end of the stalls to absorb moisture.
As an added bonus, the beds do not require raking as was the case with the sand beds and the material does not smell like manure but rather like a fresh garden potting material.
Schuld uses a bedding shooter to put material in the stalls. She observed the cows have fewer hoof problems, noting that the harshness of sand wore on the cows' feet.
Steve added that they were using at least six loads of sand a week. That was not only a huge expense, but as pits run out of sand, it had to be brought in from longer distances, increasing the fuel cost for hauling it.
They learned about solids separations systems when they were planning their latest expansion, and they visited other farms to see the latest technology.
The separator collects the manure from the freestall, compressing it into an organic solids bedding. Using just the right amount of water to flush out the solids is the key to its success.
A 4.5 million gallon lagoon was constructed to hold more manure and accommodate for future expansions. At times, liquid from the pit is recycled and pumped to the manure solids separator to get a better final organic material.