Making the Bed

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It’s no secret that clean, dry bedding is a must for ensuring the health and happiness of the horses in your care. But in today’s marketplace, determining how to make sure that bedding is the most comfortable while doing the job of absorbing urine and the moisture in manure is tricky given all the options available. Bedding products ranging from straw to cardboard are jostling for a piece of the pie, but making the choice often goes beyond price to questions of availability, a horse’s sensitivity to some products and their labor-saving attributes.

When shopping around for stall bedding, there are a number of things to consider:

  • Absorbency. The more absorbent a material, the less is needed to do the job and the longer it’ll last.
  • Availability. Some bedding, like certain types of shavings and sawdust, is becoming increasingly difficult to find in certain regions, helping determine its price.
  • Cost. This one’s obvious, but a material’s ability to save on labor might justify its initial higher cost.
  • Disposal. Certain materials compost better than others while others take up less space and volume and take longer to fill the manure shed.
  • Dust. The level of dust changes from product to product, making it a key consideration, especially for horses with respiratory ailments.
  • Ease of use. How well it mucks out and how easily it is changed depends on the material and the stall floor.

Other concerns should also be taken into account on a horse-by-horse basis. They include questions of whether any horses in the barn routinely eat their bedding. If so, palatable types of bedding, like straw, would not be good choices. And, experiments at the Farriers National Research Center in Lafayette, Ga., show that vermiculite, peat moss and sand provide good skeletal support to laminitic and foundered horses. There are cosmetic concerns as well for show horses. Some people find that straw and shavings are more difficult to clean out of manes and tails than pelleted bedding products.

There are advantages and disadvantages to each type of bedding currently available and use largely depends on a barn manager’s philosophy toward stall management. Bedding products should be carefully researched to determine what will work best for the individual barn.

And while the experts have their favorite beddings for a wide variety of reasons, many say rubber mats should be used as a base over dirt, cement and even wood floors. Though the value of the lining’s cushioning properties is being debated, virtually every person—from veterinarian to barn manager—seems to agree the mats are at the very least beneficial because they can be easily sanitized.

Straw

The old standby, straw is bulky and can be dusty, though good-quality straw can contain less dust than some wood- and paper-based products. High-quality straw is the bedding of choice for many breeding farms because of the low-dust factor and because it is less likely to stick to a foal’s body and airways than finer materials. Many farms also choose it because it looks good and is considered to have a high comfort quotient. Its cost is usually low compared to other materials, it is readily available and it has good absorbency, especially when chopped.

The major problem with straw, however, is its bulk. As a result, it is one of the more difficult materials to muck out, requires constantly adding material, more frequent stripping and takes up a lot of space both before and after use. Other drawbacks are its highly combustible nature and the fact that some horses will eat it.

Shavings

Wood shavings have become the standard by which all other types of bedding are now judged, but there’s a problem in that not all shavings are created equal. There are hardwood and softwood shavings, shavings manufactured as a by-product of milling lumber and shavings that result from the finishing of wood destined for cabinet production. The way shavings are delivered also affects their quality. Bulk shavings are dustier than bagged shavings, and compressed shavings tend to have even less dust than loosely bagged shavings.

The cleanest, most absorbent shavings are made from kiln-dried softwoods like pine, spruce and fir. It’s important to know just what kind of wood the shavings are made from because some hardwood shavings (and combinations of hardwood and softwoods) include black walnut, which is believed to be toxic to horses.

Good-quality softwood shavings have the dust removed, are easier to store than straw, break down faster in compost and are as good, if not better, at absorbing moisture. And while their cost has been relatively low for most users, that has begun to change.

“The whole [wood-based] bedding industry has suffered over the last few years because of over-demand and too-little supply,” says Larry Kraay, owner of DryNest, a bedding manufacturer that relies on low-moisture pine shavings gathered from the secondary timber industry. The result is a thinner, smaller flake that will sift through a manure fork so there’s less waste when cleaning stalls and can absorb more moisture than larger-flake shavings.

But shavings are starting to become more expensive and less available in many regions because of increasing demands for more structural lumber and paper pulp and the seasonal nature of harvesting trees. Kraay, who prides himself on providing a consistent product, says it’s difficult to keep up with the demand for shavings in winter when the timber industry shuts down, so his company is looking overseas for other suppliers.

Sawdust

Sawdust, which has traditionally been a low-cost bedding alternative, is also being affected by the increasing demands. More and more paper and particle board is being turned out, cutting into some sawdust supplies. On the upside, sawdust is somewhat less combustible than straw and is more absorbent than shavings. It also does a moderate job of keeping odors down.

“Nothing’s cheaper than bulk sawdust,” says Dr. Michael Odian, the head veterinarian at Thistle Downs racetrack in Cleveland, but, and Dr. Odian emphasizes the word, there’s a reason it’s called saw-dust. Too many problems with respiratory ailments in his own horses has prompted Odian to find other bedding.

Carol Collyer, director of the Cornell Equine Research Park in New York, has tried a wide variety of bedding and likes a combination of sawdust and shavings the best. The sawdust, she says, packs well and holds the shavings, keeping them from migrating around the floor.

Pellets

Wood- and paper-based pellets for bedding are manufactured by compressing either wood fiber or paper pulp under great pressure. The pellets, which often look like granola, are squeezed under at least 30,000 pounds per square inch and then kiln dried at hotter temperatures than are shavings, resulting in a highly absorbent material that lasts longer. The pressure also squeezes out most of the naturally occurring oils and resins, rendering the pellets virtually combustion-proof. The pellets do a good job containing urine odor and as they expand when absorbing moisture, they increase their cushioning effect and won’t pack in the hoof.

Collyer says stalls using pellets are easily cleaned, resulting in less waste, smaller manure piles and faster decomposition. Mark Greenbaum agrees. He helps his wife Beth with her business, Renaissance Farm Sport­horses, which has recently relocated from Texas to Well­ington, Fla. “It costs more or about the same as some shavings,” says Greenbaum, “but lasts twice as long.”?He points out that it is also important to “keep up” with cleaning chores so the pellets can be used to their full potential.

And pellets don’t cause intestinal trouble when ingested, as some people suspect. (But here, again, it’s important to find out what kind of wood they are made from.) On top of that, they are easier to store than shavings because they require less bags to supply a stall.

When using pellets, it’s important to maintain stalls according to the manufacturer’s directions. A drawback to pellets is their high initial cost, though proponents say they save money in the long run because of easy cleaning and the fact that stalls only have to be stripped half as often as when using shavings.

Most pellet products seem to work better when initially sprayed with water to jump start the absorption process. “We recommend the user mist it once a day if they have any concern about dust at all,” says David Ringland, owner of Woody Pet Products. He says that despite screening out dust twice during manufacturing, when a pellet product begins to absorb moisture, a dry climate and a breeze can combine to lift dust into the air. But ­keeping it damp won’t shorten its effective life. Ringland adds that pellets made from hardwoods are not as absorbent as softwood pellets and that consumers should watch out for pellets originally manufactured as fuel for wood stoves. In fact, says Gordon Schnuur of Night Horse Distributors, some wood-stove pellets are suspected of containing accelerants.

Minerals

Other alternative beddings that are being used in some quarters are based on highly absorbent clay. These beddings result in virtually no waste because only manure is removed. In fact, wet clumps of the material can be carted out of doors to air dry before being scooped up and returned to stalls. Because of this, says Bob Webb, owner of Wessco, manure piles are typically reduced in size by two-thirds when someone switches to clay from straw or shavings. Products like his Klacon HS, which has been on the market for two years, can be left in the stall for up to three months if managed properly. These beddings have granules slightly larger than sand grains, but are handled the same way and can be added to an arena when disposing to supplement footing.

Drawbacks are mainly its initial cost, weight and the dust content. But Webb says the clay dust is heavier than other dust and settles quite quickly. “It’s not what people are used to,” he says, “because when you put it in, you add some moisture to keep the dust down.” He adds that clay products flow easily through spreaders, are easy on the environment and won’t burn.

Recycled Paper Products

More absorbent than straw and wood products, recycled paper bedding comes either as baled shredded newsprint or chopped corrugated cardboard packaged in plastic bags. Newsprint is relatively cheap, but has a tendency to ball up in parts of the stall and can be a nuisance because it can blow around in a breeze. It also becomes difficult to remove when wet material mats together.

The chopped cardboard product, however, is much easier to handle. It will sift through a manure fork, cutting down on waste and can be handled like pellets, though it is lighter. Typically, once manure and wet spots are removed from the stall, chipped cardboard is fluffed to allow any damp material to dry. Its cost is on par with shavings, depending on the region. Dust is formed when the material is produced, but the better quality bedding is vacuumed free of dust before being bagged.

Dr. Michael Odian, the vet at Thistle Downs in Cleveland, switched to a corrugated-cardboard product called Hunt Club two years ago and says there’s no going back. He says the advantages are its ability to absorb odors and its padding. He even prescribes the bedding to clients who have horses with allergies and respiratory problems.

“Its absorbency is second to none,” he says, explaining that he uses it in foaling stalls as well. If you leave it in a stall too long, however, Odian says it will mold into a compacted, heavy layer like newsprint, making it difficult to remove. But pay attention to the manufacturer’s recommendations for cleaning and it can remain in a stall up to two weeks without requiring much labor. It also decomposes rapidly.

When looking at cardboard-type bedding, it is wise to find a manufacturer whose source has no staples or tape on the boxes sent to the chipper. The Hunt Club product, distributed by Triple Crown, uses boxes put together using a cornstarch-based adhesive.

Peat Moss and Hemp

According to Scott Ledbetter of the Farriers National Research Center in LaFayette, Ga., peat moss works best for bedding a laminitic or foundered horse. He says it packs well, and lends good support while remaining cushiony. It is also a very absorbent bedding material and is a good compost component.

But peat moss can be expensive and dusty, needing to be slightly wetted. Odian says it produces a fine, black dust that clings to everything. And some other experts say that it starts out looking dirty, giving it low marks for aesthetics. The research center has also experimented with sand and vermiculite, which is a heat-expanded form of mica used by gardeners to condition soil. The big problem with vermiculite is its tendency to be blown around by breezes, making it difficult to manage.

One of the era’s most misunderstood materials is hemp. Because of its physical similarities to its notorious cousin, marijuana, hemp is a banned plant in the U.S. Hemp, however, contains virtually none of the psychoactive chemical that gives pot smokers their euphoric high and can now be grown in Canada At least one manufacturer, Hempline, Inc., makes a bedding material called HempChips.

The bedding, which has been used in Europe for the last 25 years, is derived from the core of the hemp stalk. It is more absorbent than straw and most shavings, has little dust and seems to absorb ammonia odors. It also decomposes faster than straw, a benefit to those managers who also compost. The cost is said to be comparable to shavings and it is packaged in plastic bags. So far, there’s no regulation against importing packaged hemp into the U.S.

"People really like how clean it is,” says Geofrey Kime, Hempline president. “And it’s easy to work with. The crop is grown without pesticides, so it’s natural."

Though many new products are designed to last longer than conventional materials and can be easier to use, nothing substitutes for good hygiene practice. Stalls will always need to be mucked out daily and stripped on a regular basis, whether that’s once a week or on a quarterly basis, depending on the bedding you choose.