Ask four barn owners about their favorite bedding, and you’ll get five answers. There are a lot of bedding choices, but there’s one thing they all have in common: Eventually, you have to dispose of it. Manure and bedding disposal is the bane of many a barn manager’s existence, especially now that some areas have government regulations dictating where and how you do so.
In the normal course of evaluating bedding options, you look at cost, availability, storage, maintenance and potential allergens. Also consider what happens to the bedding when you’re done with it. The necessary expense of bedding can actually net you money in the end, or at least not cost additional money for disposal. Consider these bedding-disposal options for your farm:
If easy-to-compost bedding is what you’re after, “we found that wood shavings composted faster and more completely than hay used as bedding when the carbon:nitrogen ratio and moisture were ideal. Sawdust tends to compost faster and more completely than wood shavings, [which is] related to particle size,” says Lori Warren, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at the University of Florida.
Some bedding additives, such as those made from naturally occurring materials like diatomaceous earth and calcium montmorillonite (such as Stall Dry); and clinoptilolite or zeolite (such as Sweet PDZ), are compostable and can actually benefit your compost pile. One additive that researchers do not recommend composting is lime because of its high pH. “More nitrogen can be lost to the air as ammonia—volatilization—during composting when pH is high. This lowers the nitrogen available to composting microbes, so the process is slowed, not to mention the additional air pollution that is created,” says Warren.
If your anti-composting excuse is that you don’t have time to take on another project or don’t have space to build a compost heap, get in touch with area gardening organizations and offer used bedding for free. Be aware that certain states, Illinois included, have regulations for selling compost created on your farm.
“In some locations, the mushroom industry likes to use the waste and straw to compost for the growing of mushrooms. They generally are particular about what they are using, so if this is a possibility, then that would need to be coordinated with the mushroom farms,” says Ed Johnson, Ph.D., associate professor and extension horse specialist at the University of Florida.
Pennsylvania, California, Ohio, Washington, Oregon, Michigan and Delaware are the largest mushroom-producing states in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service.
“In the Thoroughbred industry in Florida, Bahiagrass hay is used on farms where they have cattle operations, as well. Horses are bedded on the hay, and it is then stripped out daily and fed to the cattle,” explains Johnson.
According to the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, Bahiagrass hay is usually made from surplus pasture growth, so the grass is cut when mature and the resulting hay is poor-quality and unattractive to horses but still digestible by cattle.
Horse manure could someday power the computer you’re using to read this article. Researchers are testing the use of soiled bedding as a biofuel. One such program is a partnership between Mid-Michigan Recycling and Michigan State University Cooperative Extension, in which used wood shavings are burned in a biomass power plant. Every biofuels research program is different, but if there is one in your area, the researchers could give you guidance on the best bedding and stall-maintenance process for their program.
Considering the latest findings about parasite loads on pastures spread with fresh manure, using soiled bedding as a pasture fertilizer doesn’t make sense unless you’ve let your bedding compost or you’re spreading the manure on a hot, dry day and then letting your pastures rest.
If this is a good option for you, sawdust, wood pellets or small-flake wood shavings could be your best bedding bet. “The smaller [bedding] particle size doesn’t show up as much and becomes incorporated into the soil more readily,” says Johnson.
With wood pellets, however, check the source before you spread. “There are a few companies that recycle stall waste and turn it into pelleted bedding. While the pelleting process of this recycled bedding likely involves enough heat to kill pathogens, the recycling of material can concentrate nutrients like salt. So if this was then spread on pastures, the high salt content could kill pasture grass,” says Warren.
Similar to the benefits they provide for composting, bedding additives can boost fertilization of pastures.
If all else fails, remove soiled bedding from the farm via dumpster. Because you pay by volume, look at compact bedding, such as wood shavings, pellets, sawdust, ground corn cobs, and chopped straw and newspaper.
According to Claire Brandt, managing partner of Equustock, which produces Guardian Horse Bedding, the company’s wood pellets and mini-flake shavings create less waste: “For farms that dumpster their waste, reducing disposal by 50 to 70 percent means huge savings.”
Not all trash companies will take large volumes of organic matter, particularly because of the harm caused by leeching of organic matter into water sources. But maybe by finding another taker for your byproduct, you won’t need to pay someone to remove the waste for you anyway.
From sourcing to disposal, bedding choices are not one-size-fits-all. A little creative thinking on your part could result in a decision that saves headaches and money.