Bedding Down for Winter
Straw provision for housing cattle and sheep overwinter
When caring for housed livestock over the winter months, perhaps the most important consideration is the provision of clean, dry bedding. For most farmers, wheat or barley straw is the most popular choice. Organic standards permit the use of non-organic straw for bedding purposes only.
Why is providing sufficient amounts of bedding material so important?
Keeping livestock clean during the housing period is a key welfare issue. Maintaining hygienic conditions in housing areas will not only help reduce the incidence of disease and metabolic disorders, but will also improve the welfare and overall performance of livestock. In addition to this, many abattoirs are becoming increasingly stricter with regards to the cleanliness of the animals being received. Financial penalties on farmers are often imposed for finished cattle being presented in a dirty condition.
Particular attention to straw provision should be considered when cattle or sheep are nearing the end of their gestation period, as well as the post-parturition period. If bedding conditions are allowed to deteriorate, there is an increased likelihood of mastitis-causing bacteria entering the mammary system (through teat orifices). Similarly, for in-lamb ewes, the likelihood of encountering ‘watery mouth’ disease in lambs is greatly increased if ewes are kept on soiled, unsanitary bedding. Therefore, it’s crucially important to ensure that animals in this category are provided with plenty of clean, dry straw on a daily basis.
When buying in bedding material such as straw, it is important to give careful consideration to its storage prior to being used. If bales are allowed to get wet, spoilage can take hold, which not only reduces the absorption capacity of the bedding, but damp straw can also harbour conditions for harmful bacteria and fungus.
If bedded areas are allowed to become too soiled or wet, then more animals will tend to lie down in yard or feeding areas is poor for hygiene. In addition to this, animals which develop the habit of lying on uncomfortable surfaces can experience joint or muscular problems over time. Consideration should be given if adverse weather conditions occur – sometimes high winds and rain / snowfall can cause straw within the housing area to become wet. If this is the case, action should be taken to prevent water from entering the building, either by closing doors, or temporarilyblocking off permeable cladding.
Some farmers use straw choppers to distribute the straw more efficiently. Care should be taken to avoid chopping the straw too finely, as well as preventing animals breathing in dust produced by the chopping process. Removing stock from the area being bedded beforehand is best practice.
What are the other benefits of using good quality straw for bedding?
For many farm businesses, the cost of straw for bedding and the labour required for daily bedding will make the use of loose housing straw yards unattractive, although for livestock farms located in arable regions or with an arable enterprise, straw may be cheap and more readily-available.
One of the main benefits of using ample quantities of straw for bedding material is that a larger amount of farmyard manure (FYM) is accumulated at the end of the housing period. The straw-based component of FYM is a key source of organic matter, benefiting soil organisms which can break down the cellulose and incorporate it into the soil.
Improving comfort for housed livestock may also lead to increased productivity. If cattle and sheep are clean and free from physical discomfort, then it is more likely that they will experience fewer problems at lambing / calving, and store animals may have better daily live weight gains.
Overall, it is counterproductive to give insufficient straw to livestock during the housing period. By paying careful attention to bedding provision, farmers can ensure that the welfare of their livestock is maintained to a high standard, which gives lead to increased productivity and avoiding unwanted disease burdens.