Outside of farmers, I suspect few people stay up at night pondering what cows actually sleep on. But in the unlikely event that you are one of them, allow me to shed a little bit of light on this topic. There is actually quite a variety of inorganic and organic bedding materials used nowadays. The main criteria for selecting stuff to feather the bovine nest is a combination of health related concerns (e.g. needs to be comfy, dry, absorptive and should inhibit bacterial growth) and economic necessity (i.e. cheap, plentiful and the lower the labor required to get it in and out the better).
Common inorganic bedding products include sand (good, cheap but can be a nuisance to handle), limestone screenings, and gypsum (from recycled drywall; comes with hazard warnings!). Inorganic products seem to be better at managing pathogens than the organic stuff which includes sawdust, straw, and shavings (from wood, not men’s chins). Dried manure solids are apparently popular in some parlors (I have a hard time getting beyond the ick factor with that) although pathogens proliferate in dried dung. And now some cows are even enjoying waterbeds – talk about having to keep up with the Jerseys (cue the farm girl humor)!
While mucking stalls could never be classified as glamorous, it certainly never seemed to be considered hazard duty way back when I used to be relegated to barn clean up duties. But some of the stuff being used as cow bedding can apparently be downright dangerous according to recent articles out of Cornell and Penn State.
Some farms use a bedding additive to reduce odors, absorb ammonia and suppress pathogens which can lead to mastitis and other nasty ailments. I haven’t seen any solid research published specifically on using biochar as a bedding additive but I do know that most biochars are good at moisture control, can help with odor control and some studies have shown that it is helpful in disease suppression. Added to that is the ability of biochar to hold on to some of the valuable nutrients in manure which often get lost to the environment either through leaching or through volatilization. [Did you know that in some experiments up to 99% can be lost? What a waste!] This type of multiple use strategy for biochar (or ‘cascading uses’ as the CH’artist calls it) where various triple bottom line benefits are derived makes for a very compelling ‘soilution’.
To recap, in the bovine bedding & biochar scenario the likely benefits are: odor control, improved pathogen control, reduced nutrient leaching, reduced volatilization, improved carbon content to soils, as well as, and this can’t be emphasized enough, no dangerous crap! So farmers and researchers, isn’t it time to dive deep into bovine bedding & biochar research?
For any of you that have mucking stalls on your bucket list and might be passing through the Finger Lakes, I can definitely hook you up with the mucking experience of a lifetime!