Southwestern Missouri dairy farmers find that cows housed in compost bedded pack barns are healthy, happy and produce more milk, says University of Missouri Extension dairy specialist Ted Probert.
Bedded pack barns are structures used to house livestock by continually adding new bedding to the living area. Large, open-air bedded barns provide comfortable resting and walking areas instead of individual stalls and concrete alleyways typically used in freestall operations.
Probert says southwestern Missouri's many sawmills give livestock owners an ample supply of finely ground sawdust for packing. The sawdust provides livestock with soft, safe resting and walking areas. Livestock operators till the sawdust, which contains animal waste, and it builds into compost over time.
Sawdust prevents foot and leg injuries commonly associated with concrete and hard dirt surfaces, Probert says. Compost bedded pack barns tend to create less odor than other manure storage systems. Farmers clean barns once or twice yearly and apply the nutrient-rich material to cropland.
Cow comfort is king, Probert says. Most farmers equip their barns with curtains that lower during rain, snow and windstorms. Ceiling or side fans circulate air and cool cows. Some barns have sprinkler systems to cool cows during periods of excessive heat.
The barns allow animals to walk freely to feeding, watering and grazing areas.
These barns offer great value at a low cost, Probert says. He says cost sharing for pack barns is now available through the Natural Resources Conservation Service's EQIP program. For more information, go to nrcs.usda.gov(opens in new window).
One southwestern Missouri dairy producer received advice on compost bedded pack barns from numerous MU Extension specialists, including Probert, Joe Zulovich, Bob Schultheis and retired dairy specialist Barry Steevens.
They guided Mountain Grove dairy producer David Gray through the decision-making for his pack barn. Gray Family Dairy includes David, wife Rhonda and three children.
Gray says he has seen improved milk production of 15-18 pounds daily per cow since building his 60-by-140-foot pack barn in 2014. His entire 78-cow Holstein herd has access to the barn.
Gray uses sawdust from area sawmills for bedding. He tills the compost daily and spreads it on 55 acres of cornfields used for silage twice a year. "We've seen a big benefit in organic matter and fertility," he says.
Gray's barn features large overhead ceiling fans that cool cows and ventilate the barn. He raises or lowers side curtains as temperatures change. Lights are on a timer. They provide extended "daytime" for cows. Research shows that this increases milk production.
He also has seen lower somatic cell counts, a main indicator of milk quality. Milk buyers pay higher prices for low herd SCC. Buyers also refuse to buy milk with levels above targeted amounts.
Cows also eat more when comfortable, Gray says, and his herd has increased feed intake significantly. Increased comfort reduces feed intake lags during heat stress. Cows also have ready access to feed in nearby feed barns.
Gray notices other signs of improved cow comfort. He sees fewer foot injuries, and improved udder and teat health. Their relaxation level is so strong that he is sometimes unsure if cows are relaxing or dead when he walks into the pack barn. Another benefit is improved heat detection. Comfortable cows and better footing improve mounting. Producers can better monitor breeding because animals are located in a central area.
Cows are free to roam to other areas but they return to the pack. "What do they choose? They choose to go to an open gate but they choose to come back to where the comfort is," Gray says.
The barn provides comfort for dairy herd owners too, he says. He sleeps better on cold winter nights knowing that his cows are not lying on snow-covered pastures.