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Economic Dairy Bedding Considerations

Tight margins on dairy farms make it more critical for dairy producers to focus on the cost of production.

Bedding is a significant cost ranging from $40-82 per cow, per year (Penn State). The national average for 2017 was $0.24 / cwt, so the choice of bedding is an important financial decision.

Milk quality starts with clean, comfortable cows. Proper dairy bedding enhances cow comfort by keeping cows dry and clean, while preventing injuries to udders, feet and legs. Bedding materials should provide a soft, dry surface which keeps cows clean and maximizes their stall lying time and, in turn, their milk production.

Proper cow cleanliness starts in the barn, not at the milking station, with proper housing design, bedding and maintenance practices. Comfortable stalls will be used more and require more maintenance. A dry, clean surface reduces the risk of mastitis infections, one of the costliest diseases on any dairy farm. Each incidence can cost $200-250. The choice of bedding affects udder hygiene, which impacts mastitis risk.

First, bedding must be able to absorb moisture and contain a low number of mastitis causing organisms. However, it is also important to provide a soft, comfortable stall to lie in and a firm stable footing when cows enter and exit the stall that is not abrasive to knees and hocks or irritating to the udder skin.

Farms successfully use a variety of bedding products such as sand, separated manure solids, sawdust or shavings, each with their advantages and disadvantages. While sawdust and shavings have been used for years, more recent developments include the use of recycled manure solids, which encourages the growth of bacteria if it is not kept dry. Recycled sand needs to be 10 to 12% moisture, with less than 2% organic matter. Higher levels of moisture or organic matter can lead to increased risk for mastitis infections over time.

What is USA Gypsum?

USA Gypsum is calcium sulfate, a pH neutral, soft soluble hydroscopic mineral with microscopic voids, which provides enhanced moisture-absorbing capacity.

Why use USA Gypsum bedding additives?

Since it is a mineral, gypsum does not support bacterial growth. USA Gypsum quickly dries bedding because it is more absorbent than surrounding bedding materials. Moisture is drawn first to the gypsum particles, while the primary bedding stays drier, extending bedding life. Hydrated lime has often been used for this purpose, but direct contact with the cow’s skin irritates udders and legs, causing discomfort. USA Gypsum is non-caustic, so it doesn’t burn or irritate skin. For a simple test, just dip a hand with an open abrasion into hydrated lime and then gypsum. Now imagine what the cow feels.

Sulfate trace minerals are used to kill microbes in a foot bath. Lime and manure accumulation in the footbath causes the pH to rise (become more basic) and lose its antibacterial properties. Gypsum is pH neutral and users report that adding gypsum (sulfate) to cow beds improves foot health. Properly designed, bedded and maintained stalls also decrease walking time leading to cleaner, drier feet.

How is USA Gypsum applied?

Dairy farms use a variety of USA Gypsum products for premixing, placing manually, or with side shooters. Some managers achieve their goals by simply top dressing the rear portion of the stall. If enhanced footing is needed, USA Gypsum’s GripX1 provides enhanced footing in walkways or stalls. Shaving and sawdust suppliers also premix USA Gypsum, providing a convenient, ready to use product that can be applied without changing storage or placement practices.

Does Gypsum Bedding Reduce My Fertilizer Cost?

Sulfate Sulfur is an essential building block for proteins in forage and is increasingly found deficient in soils and tissue tests due to improved yields, tillage practices and reduced environmental sources. Dairy manure is typically 3lbs sulfur per 1,000 gallons and is a good source of sulfur, but many farms are still deficient, limiting forage yield and quality.

How will you supply sulfur if a deficiency is identified?

A lack of sulfur will impact nitrogen utilization if the proper ratio is not maintained. Gypsum, combined with manure, converts ammonium to ammonium sulfate, a more stable form of nitrogen that improves the N:S ratio.

Soil pH is lowered by elemental S, ammonium thiosulfate, and ammonium sulfate. The oxidation of elemental or chemically reduced S (thiosul for example) creates acidity, which lowers soil pH and requires additional liming to boost pH. Gypsum contains calcium in a form 100x more soluble than lime, so it moves through the soil profile better than lime. This can be particularly helpful where sub-soil acidity or high magnesium levels are creating soil structure problems.

Check your cost for Sulfur! Chances are, the value of the sulfate in gypsum bedding will pay for itself, since you are able to use it as bedding first, for free.

Example ½ lb. of gypsum per/ cow /day = 25.5lb sulfate per year x $0.50 /lb = $12.75 Value per cow.       

The USDA NRCS has issued Conservation Practice Standard 333 Amending Soil Properties with Gypsum Products, which qualifies gypsum for cost sharing in some areas. Contact your NRCS office for information on this practice.

How will USA Gypsum affect waste handling?

Because gypsum is soluble, it dissolves and works well in flush gutters, gravity flow pipes, and liquid manure storages.

Dairy manure already contains sulfur. The amount varies due to feed efficiency, DDGS replacing corn, water quality, and incidental sources such as sulfate-based foot baths. Most farms are required to test manure NPK, but not other micro nutrients. The extra cost to test for micro nutrients, including sulfur, should be considered.

Manure generates different gases, depending on storage and management practices. Sulfur in an anaerobic manure storage can convert to hydrogen sulfide gas (H2S) based on factors including temperature, pH, organic matter content, and oxygen levels. H2S can increase odors and is dangerous. OSHA guidelines are a legal requirement for all employers. Manure handling safety guidelines are widely published and should be followed.

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