Bedding material comparison in a composting barn

2016 Annual Report for FNE14-799

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2014: $11,081.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2017
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Sarah Ficken
New Moon Farms

Bedding material comparison in a composting barn


Composted bedded pack barns are an innovative solution to the problems of nutrient management, cow comfort, and manure storage faced by small dairy producers in the Northeast. The largest obstacle to adoption of composted bedded pack barns is the dearth of cost-effective bedding material. Sawdust is the current best practice for bedding in composted bedded pack barns, but the cost of bedding with sawdust can exceed $0.50 per cow per day and not many cost-effective alternative bedding sources have been identified. Since composted bedded pack barns are still a relatively new housing system, there are still many gaps in the research.
Peanut hulls are a source of bedding that is well suited to composting and readily available, but initial results were highly unfavorable. A paper by product is another alternative to wood shaving, although moisture and pH requirements make sourcing paper byproduct more difficult.

In this study, we divided our pack in half to compare experimental bedding treatments — peanut hulls, peanuthulls and wood chips, and paper by product — with a control sawdust treatment. We collected data on the pack weekly and will perform statistical analyses upon the completion of the study. We are continueing to work with Cornell Cooperative Extensions in Madison County to implement our outreach plan.

Objectives/Performance Targets

The objective of this project is to measure the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of alternate bedding materials in a composted bedded pack barn. The sources of bedding that we are evaluating are a paper byproduct, peanut hulls, and a mixture of  peanut hulls and woodchips. Peanut hulls have acceptable C:N ratios, are readily available, and have good attributes for composting. A mixture of peanut hulls and woodchips have adequate C:N ratios, are readily available, have adequate attributes for composting, and aid in disease management. Paper byproduct has an acceptable C:N ratios, has good attributes for composting,and in theory should be easy to source; finding a source of Paper byproduct with acceptable pH and moisture attributes was a significant barrier.
At the beginning the experiment, we established a composted bedded pack by following the Minnesota Extension guidelines for establishing an effective pack. We divided the barn in half, with one half of the barn receiving a control treatment of sawdust and the other half receiving an experimental treatment (either peanut hulls, paper byproduct, or a mixture of peanut hulls and woodcips). We planned to stick with each treatment for 4 months, but, due to animal health issues in 2014 had to abort the peanut hull only treatment early. We also completed our peanut hull and woodchip mixture experiment in 2015 and completed our paper byproduct experiment in 2016. 
The pack is tilled to 10” everyday following morning milkings using a c-tine cultivator pulled behind a Ford 9-N in 2015 and a rototilled pulled behind a Farmall 300 in 2016. Bedding material is added as needed while the pack is being tended. Every Saturday during the experimental period, we collected data to measure the effectiveness of the bedding material in the pack. We used temperature to assess biological activity in the pack and to determine whether the bedding is being fully composted. Temperature is critical to the breakdown of the pack into compost and indicates the level of biological activity.  We initially intended to measure cow activity on the pack to assess whether the animals show a preference. Tracking cow frequency and activity type in each half of the barn proved to be impractical; however, we are keeping an anecdotal account of noteworthy cow activity (i.e the cows love to frolic in the paper byproduct as soon as we put it down). While we will not be able to do a statistical analysis of the cow activity, we do feel that we are capturing behaviors of note.

The cold weather and a few missed cultivations (due to the birth of our daughter) led to the pack dying in the winter of 2015.  We identified an acceptable paper byproduct source (adequate pH and moisture content and reasonable price) in 2015 and began experimenting with it in June of 2016. 

We have collected 4 nutrient samples on the pack and the samples are currently sitting in our freezer waiting to be taken to the Cornell Nutrient Analysis Lab for nutrient analysis. Composite samples were taken from 12” below the pack surface. We are collecting data for the financial analysis of the pack. We have tracked the unit cost of bedding and the quantity of bedding that we use. We have also tracked time, fuel, and vehicle maintenance required to maintain the pack. In addition, we have tracked morbidity and mortality in our cows. The financial analysis, temperature of the pack, and cow comfort/disease data all point towards sawdust remaining as the standard for bedding a composted pack barn. 


Overall, a bedded pack has been great for cow comfort. We have 0% lameness in our herd. When given the choice between pasture and the barn, the cows show a distinct preference for the barn, even when the higher quality feed was located in the pasture.

We did have a mastitis problem when we first introduced our cows to the pack, however the problem was resolved once we switched to a non-iodine, barrier teat dip. Cow health has confirmed our beliefs about the superiority of a composted bedded pack.

The peanut hulls presented a number of challenges that indicated to us that they were not a good substitute for sawdust. The biggest issue with using peanut hulls was that the cows liked to eat them off both the pack and the bedding pile. We also had an outbreak of clostrdium that killed one cow and five calves. We believe this was related to the peanut hulls as the outbreak occurred immediately after we switched bedding types and our vet indicated that he believed them to be the cause; however correlation does not equal causation and it is possible that the clostridium was do to a different source (however, we don’t want to test that theory). Beyond the health issues, there were logistical issue with the peanut hulls. While they composted very well, they did not have the substance to support the skidsteer or the 9N, so we had difficulty maintaining the pack.

Peanut hulls mixed with woodchips solved the health and logistical problems mentioned above to some extent, but did not compost as well. We have not sent the nutrient samples for analysis yet, so we do not know how their nutrient profiles compare. The combinationo f the peanut hulls and woodchips proved to be a much lower cost solution than the sawdust; however, the cows prefered the side of the barn that was bedded with sawdust. It would be interesting to see how the cows reacted to the peanuthulls/woodchips if not given an choice of bedding types.

We have finally identified a paper byproduct source that had acceptable pH and moisture content and was relatively low cost. We started experimenting with the bedding in June of 2016. During the summer the bedding did a fantastic job of composting and keeping the cows clean, but with the onset of cooler weather, the biological activity in the bad diminished and the paper byproduct lost its structure. Without structure we were no longer able to maintain the pack because the tractor and skidsteer both sunk in instead of riding on top, so the pack died. 

Katherine Brosnan of Madison County Cooperative Extension assumed the role of advisor. Katherine and I met periodically throughout the year and organized a tour of the barn during Open Farm Day. The tour included a cow comfort and nutrition expert from the Paper Byproduct company as well as Educators from Cornell Cooperative Extension of Madison County and Cornell Cooperative Extension of Oneida County. We reached over 45 farmers representing 30 different farming operations and had an overall reach of 173 people that day.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

Peanut hulls resulted in significant cow mortality and acted as a breeding ground for bacteria. Peanut hulls also produced difficult conditions for the skidsteer, as they compacted under the weight of the machine.

Peanut hulls mixed with wood chips did not result in cow mortality, produced better conditions for the skidsteer, and were less expensive than sawdust; however the costs consistently showed a preference for the sawdust side of the barn. Our sawdust cost increased significantly during this test as we had to add bedding much more frequently and the cows were often cramped.

The paper by product was successful during the Summer months when the warmer temperature and greater wind dried the pack. We struggled with the paper byproduct during the Fall as it was much cooler and wetter and are working with the paper byproduct company to identify if there are management changes we can make that will make paper byproduct a better option in the colder/wetter months. 


Elizabeth Crofut
Interim Executive Director
Madison County Cooperative Extensions
100 Eaton Street
Morrisville, NY 13408
Office Phone: (315) 684-3001
Christopher Ficken
5533 Stockbridge Falls Road
Munnsville, NY 13409
Office Phone: 3154956504