Composting bedded pack barn

Final Report for FNE06-581

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2006: $9,975.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2007
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
Project Leader:
Cory Miles
Helluvahill Farm
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Project Information


Report Summary

The purpose of the project was to find a way to maximize cow comfort, longevity, milk production and quality, and manure management, all in a labor/time saving manner. We planned to provide an open area in the barn for the cows to lay down in a soft, dry pack; to monitor the legs, hocks, production, air quality & temperature for the cows; and to work on manure management, sampling the compost and spreading it on the fields as recommended to insure safety for our environment.

Our cows now have a composting bedded pack that they lay on instead of stalls; it is very soft, warm and dry. They are very comfortable. We have been doing hock and lameness scoring. The number of cows with no problems with their hocks has gone from 15% before the pack to 98.6% after developing the pack. Before the pack 45% of cows had no lameness; now 76.5% of the cows have no lameness. Milk production and quality have both increased, and we are receiving a bonus for the quality. The air quality in the pack is ammonia free and very desirable. We are also able to maintain an acceptable air temperature for the cows. We spent several hours doing a complete clean-out of the pack. We sampled the compost - it contains 70% solids, which will eliminate the run-off. The compost is of excellent fertilizer value. There was no raw manure smell while we were spreading the compost on the crop fields.

We are very, very pleased with the composting bedded pack barn.


Our project was for converting a traditional freestall barn into a Composting Bedded Pack Barn for our dairy cows. The composting bedded pack barn initiates the concept of adding bedding material as needed to the pack, aerating the bedding pack 2/3 times per day while providing natural ventilation and fans to turn the pack into compost. There are no stalls in the bedded pack for the cows; they just lie down in the pack. There are several benefits that we are looking for by initiating this: less bedding cost, happier/healthier cows, less feet, hock and leg problems, higher milk production, lower Somatic cell count and lower bacteria count, longevity of cows, cow comfort, less labor and more time for our families. The other big thing that we are interested in achieving is greater control over our nutrient management plan, less raw manure to spread, and less chemical use needed on the crop fields due to the use of the compost.

Farm Profile

Before we started we had a dairy in a freestall barn and our son had a tie stall barn. We combined the herds and remodeled the freestall. We have a farm partnership between parents & son/daughter-n-law. We farm about 300 acres in North Central PA. We grow corn and oats along with making haylage and baled hay. We milk 80 cows in a double 6 parlor, three times a day. We raise all our heifer calves for replacements.


We hired Andy Morley as our technical advisor; we consulted with him on the project. He advised us of our options on feed bunk space per cow and water needs for the cows, but had no experience with the Composting Bedded Pack. Since we have incorporated the bedding pack and he has seen the benefits we have achieved, he has been promoting the concept.

Our Vet, Dr. Cochran, has worked with us on all of the hock assessment and lameness scoring, along with assisting with cow comfort and heat abatement. She is also very impressed with the Composting Bedded Pack.

Our milk quality and production are monitored by the DHIA tester and through our Co-Op.

Project Activities

After a research trip to Minnesota, where we visited several farms that were implementing the concept of the Composting Bedded Pack Barn, we decided that we would convert our existing freestall barn into a Composting Bedded Pack Barn. We would also include the cows from the tie stall barn in the project.

We removed 3 rows of 30 stalls each, along with the concrete with each one. We left one row of stalls on the far north side of the barn for research purposes. We moved the belt feeder from the center of the freestall towards the north side, next to the row of stalls that we had left. This was also on the side of the barn that was most convenient for the feed bunk as our silos were on this side of the barn. We added and moved waterers that were more convenient for the new set-up. That left half of the freestall open, there were three outside walls and we left an existing 2-3 foot concrete wall, this wall is in the center of the barn and separates the feed area from the pack. We made an entrance into each end of the bedded pack for the cows to enter into the bedded pack. There was also an existing large door at the far end of the pack that we would use to bring in sawdust and at clean-out time. We put about a foot of sawdust into the bedded pack to get started. The sawdust we needed to get started cost us about $1400. We took about 6-7 hours getting the sawdust and getting it spread around when we first started. We then moved the cows onto the pack. Each day as the cows are being milked, we gate off the pack and till (aerate) the pack. We had originally planned on building a tiller type attachment to put onto the front of the skid-steer but we ended up getting a 6ft. tiller attachment at a local dealer instead. This was due to the time factor involved with building one. The tiller tills about 8 inches down and takes about 10-15 min. to run over the entire pack. The new tiller came at the cost of $4000 and we are very pleased with the way that it works. We get a load of sawdust once a week and we add it then, we could store it and add it as needed but we really have not got a good place to store it. It takes about an hour to get the load of sawdust in. There have been times when it was hard to get sawdust. We did use old chopped hay one time, but it heated more than the sawdust and made the compost chunky; it wasn't ideal but it did work in a pinch. It did not till up as nicely as the sawdust does. We also used paper fiber; we were able to get a trailer load of it so we thought we would try it. We felt that it was too dry, did not have much mass and did not have the water holding capacity that the sawdust had. We have found that the drier the sawdust is, the better. Very fine sawdust absorbs very quickly which can cause quick heating but less time at higher temps.

We added 8 fans to the pack area and 2 over the feed alleys. The farm also sits on top of a hill so we have a lot of natural ventilation, and the fans help keep the pack dry and helps in the composting process. With all the fans running we were able to keep the cows cool even in the extreme heat of the summer.

We placed remote sensors in the pack area and they transmit to our office where we can track the air temperature of the pack and also outside. We used this as an aid in deciding which fans to run and how many.

We had our vet out several times, she was helping with lameness scoring and hock assessment along with helping with the heat situation in the pack. She made many good recommendations.

We have also monitored our milk production, SCC, bacteria counts and overall cow health as they have adjusted to the Composting Bedded Pack.

After the cows were on the pack for 6 months, we did a complete clean-out. All of the compost was removed from the pack area. We took approximately 450 tons out and this was spread on our crop fields. There was no raw manure smell; it had a very earthy smell to it. We spread it onto about 30 acres of ground. It was 70% solids, so we had no worry about run-off. We sent a sample to Penn State University Ag Lab and were very pleased with the results. We then added another 10-12 inches of sawdust to the pack area and started over.


We kept cost records on converting our freestall into a Composting Bedded Pack Barn. Our estimates were quite close. We did have more man-hours into the project but it all worked out in the end. The cost to remove our old feeder and purchase and install a new one was our largest cost. We had to remove old concrete and pour new for the feeder - the cost of concrete was $900 and the feeder cost $8000. We spent about 200 hours getting this part of the project done. We did repair on the stalls that we had left in, to make them desirable to the cows - the cost was $600 and 30 hours of time. We purchased 10 additional used fans @ $120 - the time to install was 12 hours and the cost to install was $500 for electrical and hardware. We added 3 additional waterers at the cost of $1000 with 12 hours of time getting them installed. We rented equipment to cut out and remove the old concrete at the cost of $825; this required about 30 hours of actual work time for 2 people. We had to move a feed bin and the feed elevator along with rewiring each; cost was $200 and 35 hours of time. We then did some minor concrete work in the pack area. We added curbs at the entrances of the pack so the material could not spill out into the feed alleys, and we also added an additional 10' x 4' wall so the cows could not get over into the feed mixing area - this added an additional cost of about $500 and 15 hours of labor. We pretty much did all the work ourselves over the course of 4 months' time. Our deadline was to have the cows in the pack by May 1st.

We left one row of stalls in the barn for research. We monitored the number of cows that would go to the stall versus the pack - within 2 weeks' time 90% of the cows would use only the pack for resting. We have very few that use the stalls at this time.

We have monitored the hocks, feet and lameness of the cow with the following results:

Lameness Scoring
Normal.............Before: 45%....After: 76.5%
Mildly Lame........Before: 27.7%..After: 17.2%
Moderately Lame....Before: 16.9%..After: 5.2%
Severely Lame......Before: 10.30%.After: 1.3%

Hock Assessment
No hair missing.....Before: 15%....After: 98.6%
Bald area on hock...Before: 52%....After: 1.4%
Swelling or lesion
through hide........Before: 26.75%.After: 0%

Hock and Lameness scoring say a lot about the comfort of the cows. As you can see the results are extreme. It is amazing to see how easily the cows get up and down.

Our SCC and bacteria count have both dropped since going on the pack, we have received bonuses on our milk income due to this. When we started on the pack our SCC was 490,000 to 570,000; after we got going on the pack our SCC has been at a low of 150,000 and at a high of 280,000. Our bacteria count was averaging between 5,000 and 8,000; we are now consistently at 1,000 and 2,000. We have received bonuses in 5 of the 6 months that we have been on the pack.

Heat detection has increased, especially in the cows coming to the pack from the tie stall barn.

Milk production is up. In April before we went on the pack our production level was 144,285 lb. During May through November we have averaged 150,163 lb, with our high month being July at 165,803 lb. Our average has stayed at around 70 lb/cow; it did drop down to about 66 lb/cow when we had a 3 day stretch of extreme heat and the cows were visibly mildly heat stressed.

We also monitored the air temperature daily; we are able to keep the pack at a desirable level. Besides actual temperature and humidity recordings, our Advisor and Vet stated that milk production was a pretty good measure of heat abatement and felt confident that we were in fine shape with the number and position of fans. The average temperature and humidity levels of the barn after developing the pack were as follows:

Month.........Temperature (F)....% Humidity

The highest temperature that was reached in the barn was 73 degrees F, which was during a heat wave in August. Even during this heat we were able to keep the humidity under 80%.

We did a total clean-out after the cows had been on the pack for 6 months. We had a sample of pack tested with the following results:

Total Nitrogen..........15.73 lb/ton
Ammonium N..............1.08 lb/ton
Calculated Organic N....14.65 lb/ton
Total Phosphate.........5.43 lb/ton
Total Potash............18.43 lb/ton

We ended up with about 450 tons that we spread on the fields. There was no run-off and no raw manure smell.

The atmosphere is ideal for the cows; the level of comfort for the cows is unbelievable. The cows are visibly cleaner. We know that we are increasing our cow longevity.

Due to the ease of maintaince with the set-up, we have decreased labor in stall cleaning and manure spreading and the vet is working on the cows less. Before the start of the pack we were spending 40 minutes per day cleaning stalls, 20 minutes scraping alleys, 30 minutes spreading manure, and 30 minutes running the barn cleaner. Now we spend about 5 minutes cleaning the stall that we left in, 5 minutes scraping the feed alley, and about 30 minutes a day tilling the pack. We are not starting that tractor in the winter to go out and spread manure every day; we are not running and putting wear and tear on a barn cleaner every day. We use all family labor, so that hour or two a day that we save is worth a lot to us. If you look at it in the terms of a year, that is at least 365 saved hours, during which time something else can get done.

One of the unexpected results was the fact that there is very little manure/ammonia smell in the barn and no manure smell when spreading. We were also surprised by the ease of the clean-out along with the amount that there was at the end of 6 months.

The Composting Bedded Pack Barn has met all our expectations and then some.


Our farm sits atop of a hill so we get a lot of natural air movement. This, combined with the use of several fans, helps make the pack a desirable place for the cows.


There is more milk production due to the cow comfort which will also increase cow longevity and decrease our cull rates. Feed efficiency is also better.

We have less manure to spread by half, saving on time, fuel, wear and tear on equipment.

Sawdust cost is somewhat more than we expected, but we are still able to get it and we feel that even with the higher cost it doesn't stifle the benefits.

There is nothing we can think of other than the Composting Bedded Pack Barn that would cost less. Most barn remodeling projects have costs for stalls, mattresses and lots of concrete; we did not encounter this with the Compost Bedded Pack.


This has opened our eyes to composting all of the manure. At this time we scrape the feed alleys into the lagoon daily. It is much more time-efficient to haul the nutrient rich product to the field, takes less fuel/labor, and is better for the environment.

Our next item to be thinking about is how best to handle the compost to get maximum return on the investment.


We will definitely continue with the Composting Bedded Pack Barn. We are very happy with the results, some are even better than expected. We will always look for ways to improve upon it. We will continue to monitor our cull rates, production & longevity of the cows to get the long term effects.


We are constantly telling everyone about the Composting Bedded Pack Barn, to encourage others to adopt it.

During the remodeling process we had several interested individuals coming to see how it was progressing and asking a lot of questions. Since it was new to our area everyone was curious; never having seen it before they had a hard time imagining it.

For several months after we moved the cows onto the pack we had visitors. The vet encouraged people to come see it. When our Technical Advisor saw the finished project he fell in love with it and talked about it to his clients, many who have come to see it.

We held an "open barn"—we had about 40 individuals who were extremely interested; they had been reading about it in farm publications. They had a lot of questions and many hope to convert their current barns to a composting bedded pack barn.

We have a tri-fold brochure that we have distributed to many producers that tells all about our operation and the pack results.
Our local newspaper did an article on our pack barn and that has generated interest in it.
Our FFA advisor has visited our barn and is interested in bringing his classes for a tour so they can learn about new ideas. In the spring we hope to have a group of college kids here on tour.

We have opened our barn to every individual who is interested. It is our desire to give hope for a simpler, more profitable farm business concept so that we can sustain agriculture in the Northeast.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.