Straw has become an extremely scarce and expensive commodity for bedding and feeding with prices running above £200/t.

As spring calving and lambing gets underway across Northern Ireland, straw use will increase on farms. Many farmers will have straw in reserve, but there are plenty of farmers that do not.

Where farmers lack storage space, there is a tendency to buy straw by the bale, as it is needed.

At the outlined prices, every farmer will look to make the best use of bales this spring, limiting the amount of straw that has to be purchased.

When it comes to using straw, the following tips can help stretch supplies through calving and lambing time.

1 Using alternatives for bedding

Straw is the natural choice for bedding on livestock farms as it can be recycled onto grassland or arable land as a fertiliser.

Alternative bedding options can work well, but making use of the soiled product afterwards can be a problem.

Woodchip has been used to good effect on many farms for bedding and does not need topping up as regularly as straw.

As it does not knit tightly together, woodchip allows urine to drain from the surface which keeps bedding relatively dry.

It also has great heat insulation properties, which is extremely beneficial for calves. As bedding get wet, it will reduce the animal’s core body temperature.

If calves are forced to lie on cold, wet bedding, the reduction in core body temperature can suppress immunity, making animals more susceptible to diseases such as scour or pneumonia.

However, to be effective, woodchip needs to be around 12cm to 18cm deep for bedding. Some farmers find using woodchip as a base, then topping up with straw, to be a good compromise.

The downsides to woodchip are it can contain foreign objects, such as metal, and getting rid of it can be an issue.

It needs to be ploughed into the soil, making it an option on farms that reseed annually or grow cereals.

It also needs to be stored inside, which may limit its use on farms. If there is adequate storage on farm, soiled woodchip can be removed, dried and re-used a second time.

Sawdust is used as an alternative bedding material, but it has limited advantages. It does not provide the same level of soakage as straw or woodchip and becomes soiled quickly.

Dust levels will be increased, posing a health risk to humans and animals. Always wear a dust mask when handling sawdust and protective glasses.

It is best used in smaller areas such as calving pens. Make sure to put in a deep bed so cows have traction on all four feet.

Dried, milled peat is used for livestock bedding and can work well. Ideally, use for dry cows rather than post-calving. The big downside is recycling the soiled peat.

Sand can also be used in calving boxes, either as the sole form of bedding or to provide a base covered with straw.

2 Feeding high dry matter forage

Straw bedding becomes more soiled when animals are held in small pens and fed wet, low fibre diets.

Therefore, feeding silage, hay or haylage with a high fibre and dry matter content will help reduce the rate of soiling on straw bedded pens.

3 Restrict access to straw lie-back areas On farms where cattle are housed in sheds with straw lie-back areas, can cows be penned on slats during the day and only given access to bedding overnight?

When checking cows in the morning, herd animals forward onto slatted areas and close off lie-backs. There will be some cows that lie on slats during the day, but it will stretch bedding.

4 Fix leaking water troughs

Leaking water troughs will keep bedding wet and increase the rate it is soiled. Therefore, make it a priority to fix leaks.

A couple of new fittings will work out cheaper than straw at present prices.

5 Straw chopper

Where farmers have access to machinery that chops or spreads straw, make use of such kit. Chopping can reduce straw use by as much as 50% per bale compared to scattering straw by hand or pitchfork.

6 Graze sheep by day On sheep farms with grass paddocks around the yard, can ewes be turned outside to graze on dry days and rehoused in the evening?

7 Leave cows on slats until labour starts

Leave cows on slats until they have passed the water bag before moving to a calving pen, rather than moving animals to a straw bed in the days before calving.

Most farmers will do this every year, mainly due to limited housing space. But it is likely to be more common this spring given the price of straw.

One downside is cows need to be well monitored prior to calving. Otherwise, there will be calves born on slats and there is an increased risk of injury to new born animals.

Cameras will help avoid this, as will having someone in the yard to regularly check on cows close to calving.

8 Moving animals back to group pens Keeping cows and ewes in individual pens for a prolonged period after calving or lambing will increase straw use.

There is always a balance to be had. But where possible, move cows with a healthy calf, which is feeding unassisted, back to slatted sheds with creep pens or larger bedded group pens within 48 hours of being born.

There will be cows that had a difficult labour, or with a sick calf, that need isolating longer, which is fine, but these animals should hopefully be in the minority.

9 Creep areas

Calves should have access to a creep pen that provides a dry lying space. If straw is scarce and woodchip or saw dust is not an option for bedding, is there access to rubber mats from old cubicles?

Old rubber mats are often used to weigh down the cover on the silo pit and could be used for temporary bedding in creep pens.

Rubber mats will be dirtier than straw. But they have good insulation properties and provide comfort for lying. Run a hand scraper over mats daily to remove as much dung as possible.

Alternatively, make use of wooden pallets by placing them on the floor, then cover with straw.

The pallets provide a raised bed, which lets urine drain off straw and keeps bedding drier.

10 Stocking density As previously mentioned, stocking density will affect the rate bedding is soiled. The more animals on a straw bed, the faster it will be spoiled.

Therefore, look at all animals housed on farm and assess if these pens are currently being used effectively.

If some pens are understocked, is it an option to add a few extra animals in an effort to free up more space to move animals off straw bedding?

The live ring is strong, so move on cull ewes and cows, or potentially offload some store cattle to free up housing space and reduce bedding use.

Finishing cattle on ad-lib concentrate could also be moved onto high fibre silage, rather than straw. Again, this will stretch reserves for use in calving and lambing sheds.

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