Alternative Bedding and Management of Composting bedded Pack Dairy Barns

2008 Annual Report for LNC06-275

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2006: $150,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2008
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
Jeffrey Reneau
University of Minnesota

Alternative Bedding and Management of Composting bedded Pack Dairy Barns


Compost dairy barns (CDB) are a new housing option. This new housing system is perceived to improve cow comfort and longevity. There is a need to collect data on cow comfort, health, behavior and bedding management in these facilities. Data are needed on the chemical and microbiological characteristics of the bedding material and air quality. Currently, fine wood sawdust is the primary bedding materials being used. Unfortunately the demand and price has increased. Consequently, producers are interested in alternative bedding sources that may work in CDB facilities. Research is needed in finding alternative bedding materials, particularly crop residues.

Objectives/Performance Targets

  • To assess by surveying farms using CDB what their needs are and experience has been in managing these facilities;

    To determine using a micro-composting laboratory which crop residue materials possess the necessary chemical and physical characteristics to be prime candidates for use in the CDB;

    To conduct a pilot study at the Morris West Central Research and Outreach Center with the most promising crop and wood byproduct residues identified by the micro-composting experiments;

    To extend the use of the most successful alternative bedding to be used by cooperating CDB farms to determine the effectiveness in a commercial setting;

    To explore the use of the CDB end product as a value added media source for the commercial composting industry;

    To develop an Extension education program to provide this information to the general dairy farm public.


CDB Farm Survey:
During August of 2006 two regional meetings were held with collaborating CDB farms to discuss the project and to capture their input. Although interested in the details of chemical, physical and biological characteristic of the various bedding alternatives, it was clear that their unanimous concerns were:
- economic practical bedding alternatives be identified,
- bedding materials and bedded pack management be identified that will consistently provide a clean, dry and comfortable surface for the cows to lie on.

In addition, in a parallel CDB project, Dr. Marcia Endres and her graduate student Abby Barberg completed a detailed study of CDB management, cow health, comfort and behavior during 2005-2007. This study is now published: "Behavior of Dairy Cows in an Alternative Bedded Pack Housing System," 2007, J. Dairy Sci. 90:4192–4200 and Performance and Welfare of Dairy Cows in an Alternative Housing System in Minnesota, 2007, J Dairy Sci 90: 1575-1583.

Micro-Composting Lab Study: The micro-composting experiments were completed in October 2006 and summarized for presentation at the Compost Barn Conference. Of the several crop and wood product residue media tested those that appeared most promising and were used in the pilot study at the Morris Western Research and Outreach center study were: processed corn cobs, processed soybean straw, and wood chip fines.

Morris West Central Research and Outreach Center Pilot Study: The pilot project was initiated at the Morris dairy in November 2006. Four bays in a loose housing dairy cattle facility were modified to create a CDB with were bedding treatments: ground corn cobs, ground soybean straw, wood chip fines/sawdust mix and dry sawdust as a control. Sixteen cows were housed in each bay. The amounts of all bedding materials, carbon:nitrogen (C:N) ratios, pH, moisture, ammonia, phosphorus, potassium, soluble salts were measured for each bay. In addition, temperatures at various depths, cow hygiene, mastitis pathogen counts in bedding, and milk quality etc were monitored. On farm collection of data was completed by April 2007. Laboratory analyses are partially completed. Materials were composted in windrows/piles from April through September 2007. Measurements include weight and volume of composting piles, temperatures, pH, moisture, C:N ratios, ammonia, phosphorus, potassium and soluble salts. Two abstracts were presented at the annual American Dairy Science Association meetings with results from this pilot study: ‘Compost: A potential value-added product for dairy operations?’ and ‘Bedding options for an alternative housing system for dairy cows’. Two manuscripts are in preparation.

Cooperating Farm Study: Information on bedding management and on-farm data collection from 6 cooperator herds in MN that were using bedding material alternatives was collected starting November 2007. Collection of on-farm data was completed on December 2008. Manuscript is in preparation.

Education Program: The Dairy Extension website ( displays all CDB fact sheets, articles, as well as research tidbits as our CDB knowledge continues to expand. We are hopeful that these will be useful to interested farmers and dairy educators and consultants. Marcia Endres presented ‘Compost dairy barns: A viable housing option?’ at the World Dairy Expo in Madison, WI. Various popular press articles were published by the compost barn team.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

Intermediate term

- Profit will be improved on farms through reduced housing costs, more effective use of manure, sale of finished compost, sale of bedding materials to other farms, leading potentially to increased confidence in the viability of moderate size dairy farms.

- Sustaining the environment is achieved by increased proportions of manure production managed as composted material improving nutrient retention and reducing pollution risk as compared to liquid manures or daily hauling.

- Enhanced life quality will result from increased confidence of the long term viability of farming, improved air quality for the farmer and the neighbor, and the sense of improved husbandry associated with providing the dairy herd a comfortable environment.

Short term

- Improved profitability is the outcome of reduced costs of production and new products to place on the market for crop farmers, the dairy farmers with the compost barns, and businesses that process and market compost.

- Sustained environment is achieved over the longer term, although an improved environment for the cows housed in the barn will be immediate.

- Enhanced life quality in the short term will come from the satisfaction of achieving improved husbandry.

General outcomes

- Conventional dairy farmers and prospective farmers will be provided tools to utilize a systems perspective for operating their dairy farm in a sustainable way. Information will be delivered through workshops, informal publications and peer-reviewed research papers. Dairy farmers will be provided information to help them choose bedding materials and manage the bedded pack in “compost dairy barns”.

- Other farmers or enterprises adding value to corn stover, straw, soy hulls, or wood processing waste will develop a new market by selling their product to dairy farmers with compost barns.

- Marketers of compost products will acquire a new source of finished compost.

- Farmers and potential farmers will gain confidence in the possibility that moderate sized farms with modest investments can flourish economically, environmentally, and socially.