Poor straw yields due to the difficult establishment conditions this season may make it an expensive and rare commodity this year. Jane Carley speaks to manufacturers about how to get the most from bedding.
With straw from the 2020 harvest likely to be relatively scarce and some in the trade predicting a 15-20 per cent increase in costs, farmers will be looking hard at how they make best use of it for bedding.
In particular, a move to mechanised straw spreading can reap immediate benefits, with manufacturers quoting savings upwards of 30 per cent in usage rates.
But whether buying for the first time or upgrading, choice of machine is important, depending on whether the requirement is for a dedicated bedding machine or one which is also capable of feeding silage.
Kuhn’s Katie Calcutt says: “It may be farmers are forced into using some lesser quality material this winter, given the predicted scarcity, so a robust machine that is engineered to handle all types of fodder and straw may well be an advantage.
“As it might be a case of buying straw from varying sources, being able to handle round and square bales of all sizes may also be a consideration.”
Maximising straw use efficiency means achieving an even spread of material and accessing the furthest reaches of the shed.
“Having a machine with a good spreading range is important, avoiding large piles in the middle of the yard that will result in wastage and areas that are not bedded,” adds Ms Calcutt.
“A swivelling chute, capable of accessing both sides of the machine and reaching the corners is as important as the overall range and can be advantageous when bedding cubicles as well as straw yards.”
Where matted or mouldy material is used, which can lead to problems with air quality at the time of bedding, Kuhn has addressed this potential problem with its recently added Cleanstraw dust control system on the Primor straw bedding and feeding range.
Available on new equipment or as a retrofit upgrade for existing machines, the Cleanstraw facility reduces dust in livestock buildings by applying a fine mist of water to straw as it is distributed. It comprises a 64-litre water tank and three misting nozzles mounted at the exit of the straw blowing chute.
Applying a mist of water eliminates excessive levels of airborne dust by reducing the amount of time these particles remain suspended in the air.
“Reducing the amount of dust in livestock buildings not only creates a cleaner, more comfortable and more productive environment for cattle, but is also far better for farm workers,” says Ms Calcutt.
“Very little water is required, which serves to preserve the straw’s absorbency potential, ensuring it remains an effective and hygienic bedding material, and also means the speed of operation is unaffected.”
Straw remains the primary bedding material in loose housing in the UK, and is still very popular in cubicle applications, despite the many alternative materials which are now available, suggests Tom Teagle of Teagle Machinery.
Mr Teagle says: “The ideal bed offers moisture wicking, a layer of thermal insulation and the ability for liquids to pass through and run away. Straw should be as long as possible to create a lattice effect in the bed. Too much chopping will result in a bed of straw ‘porridge’, but slightly bruising the straw can provide beneficial absorbency.”
A major advantage of mechanised bale processors in saving straw over spreading by hand is that bales are broken apart and spread evenly across the bedding area, says Mr Teagle.
“This also provides a higher quality manure to spread in the field.”
Teagle customer surveys have found the reasons for use of machinery in the preparation/delivery of straw for bedding varies depending on the farm.
“In some cases the objective is to reduce straw usage, typically by about 25 per cent and in a few cases up to 50 per cent. Savings in straw usage is the benefit often popularised by manufacturers of straw bedding machinery. However, in just as many cases the benefit is to reduce the labour requirement,” he says.
“Most operators see a combination of both, with savings driven by frequency of bedding and quantity of bedding material applied.”
Choosing a machine designed for straw spreading rather than as a dual-purpose straw/silage chopper will give better results, says Jan Soukenka, UK sales manager for specialist manufacturer Lucas G.
He says: “The Lucas G Raptor and Square machines have discs rather than knives on the rotor, so straw comes out in the same condition it was in the swath. In loose housing you can produce a thick bed which gives better absorption, is healthier for the cows’ feet and leads to better quality milk.”
Mr Soukenka says maintenance of spreading machines is important.
“Check discs are not bent or worn as this will use more tractor power to spread straw. Ensure the counter knife is clean and free of debris. A build-up reduces the size of the opening which slows the spread of material and can lead to blockages.”
Another option for a dedicated straw spreading machine is the telehandler-mounted UBI Jet, which has a hydraulic loading arm and uses discs or hydraulically retractable tines to spread the straw, he says.
“This machine has a vertical rotor, which distributes the straw gently so there is less dust. This could be a good choice if you are focusing on spreading straw into buildings.”
Lucas G also reports impressive straw savings compared to using a bucket to distribute bedding, with a UBI Jet customer spreading across three by three metre pens using one bale to bed down rather than three bales previously.
Mechanical straw spreading offers savings in terms of straw economy as well as reduced labour requirement, compared with using a grab or manual distribution, the University of Liverpool Institute of Veterinary Science, Wood Park Farm has found.
Wood Park Farm, which has a 220-cow herd, evaluated a Spread-a-Bale telehandler-mounted distributor in its straw bedded dry cow and youngstock accommodation.
Compared to its previous operations using a grab to shake out the straw, the Spread-a-Bale proved to be more effective and efficient. At the same time, quality of bed remained the same, and the low level of mastitis cases was maintained.
John Cameron, farm manager at the farm, says; “I have used a number of straw bedding machines and always disliked the amount of dust produced during spreading and even less appreciated unblocking them on a regular basis.
“We have several straw yards with less than ideal designs and have a high standard of bedding, being a university farm, which means a significant amount of straw is used annually. The straw bill for 2018 was about £30,000, which is about twice the average spend for this size of farm based on Promar costings.
“Using Spread-a-Bale, we have halved our straw usage. It is easy to use and rarely blocks – its rotors and bed can be put in to reverse if it does – and it leaves a fluffy bed for animals to nest in.”
Wood Park Farm’s findings are consistent with feedback from other livestock farmers, says former dairy producer Michael Hughes, who invented and developed Spread-a-Bale, now manufactured at the company’s base in Cheshire.
“These farmers are commonly reporting 50 per cent straw saving over manual spreading with square bales and up to 35 per cent for round bales. They are also reporting time and labour savings of up to 75 per cent. One 600kg rectangular bale can be spread in 45 seconds,” he says.
“Spread-a-Bale’s spreading rotors accelerate a mass of straw to throw it the full width of the pen with minimal dust generation. Consequently, longer straw makes for a longer lasting bed. Furthermore, the system is truly self-loading from the stack, so just one fore-end loader is required.”
In cubicles, the ideal bed is one that will remain in place. Straw that is too long will get dragged back into the scraper aisle, explains Tom Teagle.
“Similar to loose housing, bedding must also be effective at wicking moisture, provide thermal insulation and, most critically, be comfortable to encourage lying down for optimum milk production.
“We find short chopped or, ideally, milled straw provides the best characteristics. The straw stem is completely broken apart for optimum absorbency and chop length is consistent. This is an important factor where pumped slurry systems are involved.
“The benefits most customers cite in using straw from Teagle bale processors is the easier handling of straw bedding over sand and the speed at which straw breaks down in the field compared to wood-based products,” he adds.
Richard Burman says the Kidd 300 bale shredder with 1.2-metre fan gives a flat carpet effect in cubicles, the power of the fan blowing straw right to the back of the cubicle.
He says: “The alternative is a self-propelled or pedestrian machine, but they are not really viable for dairy farms.”
Lucas G’s Jan Soukenka says while straw is used less often in cubicles in the UK, one solution to bedding them down is an overhead system, popular on the continent.
The most economical way to bed down is to produce a flat ‘carpet’ of straw, says Richard Burman, managing director of Kidd Farm Machinery.
He says: “You need to feed the straw out rather than chopping it and there are only a couple of machines on the market that can do this.
"Our 450 bale shredder has a 1.5-metre wide fan and by reducing the pto speed and ‘metering’ out the straw flat across a building, wastage is reduced.
"It works best in larger buildings and there is also less dust than when chopping. When spreading half-tonne round bales, you need half to one bale less compared with chopped straw.”