3 Rules for manure-solids bedding

As additional methane digesters come on-line, and regulations regarding manure storage and application get more stringent, more dairies across the country  — not just those in the arid regions — are turning to dairy manure solids as a bedding source. 

Sand bedding remains the gold standard. But those who've used manure solids for years can attest to the fact that it can be an excellent bedding material.

There are challenges, like increased risk for environmental mastitis if not managed correctly. In addition, some dairies source the material from neighboring dairies, which also can be a potential health risk. 

Using manure solids for bedding requires you to challenge some conventional wisdom regarding bedding practices. But researchers are finding that "common wisdom isn't always wise," says Ellen Harrison, director of the Cornell Waste Management Institute. Manure solids as bedding can work well; it just takes a different set of management practices.

Apply the following rules:

1. Establish pre-milking protocols.

Before you can start bedding with manure solids, you must have proper milking protocols in place, as well as properly trained employees and a system to monitor compliance.

If milking protocols are not being adhered to or somatic cell count is higher than expected, retraining is in order. Make sure that everything is in place before switching bedding sources.      

"You wouldn't add a new piece of parlor equipment without having the systems in place to use it," says Doug Block, of Hunter Haven Farms in Pearl City, Ill. "Bedding with manure solids is the same thing — you must have your systems in place to be successful."

Kenn Buelow, of Holsum Dairies near Hilbert, Wis., agrees. "A big part of our success with manure-solids bedding comes from training, retraining and retaining employees," he says. With parlor employee turnover less than 15 percent, employees have the experience to know what is expected of them and how to properly follow parlor protocols.

It would be difficult to successfully bed with manure solids without this type of pre-milking program, he acknowledges.

2. Practice mastitis prevention in the dry period.

Review your dry-cow treatment protocols. All dry cows should be treated with a dry-cow treatment tube as directed by product labels. An internal teat sealant may be helpful, but used in accordance with your management strategy.

Follow proper vaccination protocols. Check with your veterinarian to determine if you should also include protection against E. coli. And, don't forget to include heifers in your dry-treatment strategy.

3. Step up bedding management.

Bedding with manure solids requires excellent bedding management. Those who have successfully used it recommend the following:

  • Groom stalls at each milking. Remove manure and wet spots in each stall. Even-out bumps and humps to create a smooth surface for improved cow comfort. This also prevents urine from pooling.
  • Monitor cow performance to ensure proper grooming. "I've not seen a spike in (somatic cell count) after raking or rebedding," says Kirk Vander Dussen, dairy manager at Holsum Dairy.
  • Make sure stalls have adequate bedding levels. Block and Buelow have each found that adding bedding twice weekly to deep-bedded stalls (15 to 18 inches deep) with manure solids does the job.
  • Maintain bedding on mattress stalls. Each stall should have several inches of coverage. Block adds bedding five times a week to stalls with mattresses. He has found that this frequency, combined with the physical properties of manure solids, keeps the material on the bed to his and the cows" satisfaction. "The cows have a better cushion," he explains.
  • Bedding materials should be as dry as possible, but don't be surprised if material contains about 70 percent moisture. Make sure your barn's ventilation enhances drying.  
  • Allow for bedding storage. Buelow uses material fresh from the digester daily. A large concrete pad enables him to manage the material. Block also uses digested material daily, but he also has added covered storage. Both systems work well. And both dairies sell bedding material to neighboring farms, which makes the volume of solids more manageable.

By paying attention to detail, Holsum Dairy in Wisconsin was able to switch to manure-solids bedding (from oat and soy hulls) and achieve its clinical mastitis goal of 2 percent and reduce Staph. aureus infections from 5 percent six years ago to 0.3 percent today.

Likewise, Hunter Haven Farms in Illinois reports that Klebsiella mastitis infections have dropped by 90 percent since the switch to manure solids a little more than two years ago. Excellent bedding management has played a vital role.

Remember, each of these steps is important on its own. But for success with manure-solids bedding, you must have all three steps working in tandem for good results. Failure in any one area will compromise your results.

Do bacteria counts in the Stalls matter?
Organic bedding materials are a hotbed of bacterial activity. Some materials, like composted manure solids, begin with lower concentrations, but all organic bedding materials rise to similar bacterial concentrations within 24 to 48 hours.

It has long been thought that bacterial levels should be kept below 1 million colony forming units per gram of bedding wet weight to prevent environmental mastitis. However, new research challenges that premise.

"That rule-of-thumb stems from one paper written in 1974 that represents data from a very small sample," says Ellen Harrison, director of the Cornell Waste Management Institute. "We don't know if bedding bacteria counts actually matter, so we're looking into it and other factors that may play a bigger role."

To learn more about the research project currently under way, go to: http://cwmi.css.cornell.edu.

Comparable results
Researchers at South Dakota state University recently released the results from an on-farm study that compared dolomitic limestone bedding (used in the region for its similarity to sand) and reclaimed dairy manure solids bedding. The results were presented at the Sixth International Dairy Housing Conference this summer.

The results indicate that there was no difference between the two materials in somatic cell counts, milk production or milk fat and protein, according to Alvaro Garcia, SDSU extension dairy specialist. And no differences in cow comfort were observed between treatments. If anything, cows bedded with manure solids were cleaner than those bedded with dolomitic limestone.

Know your source
If you source manure bedding from another dairy, you need to know what animal diseases they may have on that farm. You may want to avoid herds with Johne's disease or salmonella problems if you want to break the disease cycle. It is unknown whether composting or methane digesters effectively eliminate these pathogens from bedding material. Research is under way to get an answer.