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Cows lay on bedded pack material inside barn
RELAXING ON BEDDED PACK: Cows relax as farmers tour a deep-bedded pack barn in Vermont.

Using bedded packs leads to better results on New York dairy

Mike and Karen Hooper have been composting manure in their bedded packs for six years.

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

While dealing with manure can be a hassle for some dairy farmers, Mike and Karen Hooper of Memphis, N.Y., have found success re-using manure in their cows’ bedding.

Their bedded pack works as both a manure composting area and a place to rest for their 120 cows. The Hoopers purchase sawdust as bedding material.

Two to three times a week they roto-till manure into the sawdust and add more clean material on top. The process continues through late July or August when it's cleaned out and spread on fields as composted material. The cows are usually outside at that time, so it's an ideal time to clean the barn.

"You need to be diligent with the pack," said Mike, speaking at a recent New York Certified Organic winter meeting. "You want it hot."

Not roto-tilling keeps fecal matter on top, meaning dirty cows. It also inhibits the composting effect. In very cold weather, stirring up the pack can cool it off too much, so the Hoopers don't mix it up as much during winter.

"Comfort is our biggest thing," he said.

Better comfort, better results
Mike believes that maintaining the soft-packed bed has contributed to his animals’ excellent feet.

"We cull for crossed teats because of the robots, but not for feet," he said. "We have excellent feet quality."

The farm maintains a 10% to 11% cull rate, usually for cows 7 to 8 years old. The somatic cell count ranges from 120,000 to 160,000, and 60% of the herd is in its fourth or fifth lactation, which he partly attributes to bedded pack management.

Mike said that farmers looking to set up a bedded pack barn need good air circulation. His barn has several 6-foot fans that operate continuously. The barn layout helps, too, as keeping the pack dry is important.

"You want the sun beating in on that pack, drying it out," he said.

The curtains only close during winter.

Michael and Karen Cooper NO REGRETS: Despite the higher costs, Mike and Karen Cooper say using bedded packs is better for their cows and has led to better results.

Choosing the right pack material helps it to compost properly. Sawdust from a sawmill tends to become sodden quickly, so the Hoopers prefer coarse, kiln-dried sawdust that absorbs liquid better.

"If I have that fine stuff, it's like buying air," he said.

Once the Hoopers clean out the barn, they leave about 6 to 8 inches of compost as "starter" for a new pack.

Karen said the bedded pack also provides a better lifestyle for the herd. She’s aware of her cows’ herding habits, which she thinks become disrupted if they are kept in stalls.

"Being on a bed pack keeps them in their herd," she said. "We raise them in little groups. By having bed packs, they can stay in the group of their choice. It works for us in maternity."

Instead of isolating mothers in a birthing pen or hospital barn, the cows stay on their bedded pack with familiar cows and feel less stressed. In the hospital area, "they smell stress," she said. "That's not where they want to be when calving. We let them calve wherever they want to be."

The Hoopers have two Lely robots for milking, which can mean less supervision of birthing moms. But with the bedded pack system, "aunts" can often step in to help first-time or reluctant cows with care, such as licking and warming the newborn.

"We usually find a calf in a small circle of cows, all clean and standing," Karen said.

"In the six years we've been doing this, we've never had a calf get pulled down the alley scraper," Mike said. "They're so protective."

The calves get their own bedded pack with a fluffy layer of straw on top during winter.

Not for everyone
Despite their enthusiasm for bedded pack barns, the Hoopers realize that it's not the right fit for every farm. Sawdust, for example, cost them $20,000 to purchase last year. They also must provide face masks to employees handling the sawdust to minimize the risk of inhaling finer particles. But the Hoopers believe these extra costs are offset by fewer health issues, such as hoof problems and mastitis.

They also believe the milking robots contribute to lower mastitis levels.

Sergeant writes from central New York.

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