Ask the Expert: What’s the Best Bedding? – Ann Hoskins, Vita Plus

Posted on December 21, 2015 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
By Ann Hoskins, Vita Plus calf products coordinator

Question:  What material makes for the best bedding for my calves?

Answer:   We have many options for bedding calves. The easiest choice is what you have available, but that might not always be the best choice.  Consider your entire setup and how the details affect your options.

Calves require at least 30 to 40 square feet of resting space with a recommended bedding depth of 8 to 12 inches, depending on material, base material, and weather conditions.

Now consider absorption.  If the average pre-weaned calf is drinking 6 quarts of milk in addition to 2 quarts of water per day, that is just shy of 9 pounds of fluid per calf and most of that will be excreted into the bedding on a daily basis. Choosing a bedding material that absorbs well or has good drainage is a must.

Here are some other areas to evaluate:

Pathogen exposure through grooming
Calves regularly spend 2.5 to 4 percent of their time grooming themselves.  A dirty calf can be exposed to a high load of pathogens from grooming.  Small particle materials such as rice hulls promote more frequent grooming while long dry straw does not.  Depending on the cleanliness of the bedding surface, ingestion of fecal pathogens can be significant with grooming.

Inorganic versus organic bedding
Pea gravel, crusher fines and sand have all been used for calf bedding. The inorganic products do not support bacterial growth until contaminated with manure or feed spillage, but lack the ability to absorb moisture.  They provide cooling during hot summer days, but rob the calf of the needed insulation when temperatures drop below 60 degrees F.  Inorganic materials tend to keep fecal material in closer contact with the calf and lack comfort, with the exception of sand.

Organic bedding absorbs more moisture than its inorganic counterparts; therefore bacterial growth can occur more rapidly.  The addition of manure and urine contributes to bacterial growth and leads to higher levels of airborne bacteria, potentially resulting in respiratory problems.  Studies with dairy cattle housing show that straw supports higher levels of Streptococcal bacteria growth while wood shavings and rice hulls support coliform growth.

Base materials
Current facilities and the pad on which the bedding will be applied influence the best option for your calves.  Cement pads require more absorptive material and will have to be sloped to move the seepage away from the pen.  Gravel- and lime-based pads work well with less absorptive materials as they allow the urine and seepage to drain downward.  Scrape the pad and let it rest empty for at least one week between calves. A properly installed gravel or lime pad is easy to maintain.

Seasonal considerations
This time of year, calves need areas to nest and get protection from the cold and elements. Deep beds of long straw are best for temperatures dropping below 60 degrees. When evaluating a straw bed, the calves legs should be 75-percent covered when lying down. Other materials, such as bean stubble and corn stalks, do not have the nesting qualities that straw offers. These products tend to pack easier and do not maintain the “fluff” factor.

Some facilities will work better with a team of bedding products. In a facility with poor drainage, you may want to consider a more absorptive base such as shavings topped with long straw. In this case, you will achieve both absorption and nesting.

When choosing bedding, it is key to look at the facility setup, drainage and the affordable options available. Once you have that information, you can decide what is going to work best to keep your calves clean, dry and comfortable.

Category: Bedding
Starting Strong - Calf Care