Cattle Bedding Substitutes

Written by lillian teague
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Cattle Bedding Substitutes
Bedding for dairy cows should maintain a clean udder area to prevent against mastitis. (Cows inside a cowshed image by Scott Latham from

Dairy cows, feedlot cattle and show cattle kept in barns spend approximately half of their time lying down. According to Juanita Kopp, forage and beef specialist at Alberta Agriculture and Food, cattle require 9 per cent less energy to lie down than to stand. Cattle kept on comfortable bedding show increased comfort levels which result in better milk production, positive weight gain and improved overall health. In general, cattle bedding materials should be comfortable to lay on, non-abrasive, non-slippery, highly absorbent of water and urine, and display low levels of environmental bacterial.

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According to the Cattle Network, straw is an excellent bedding material when it comes to comfort level. A fairly cheap material, it is easy to manage in a stall or loose yard situation. However, you must muck straw frequently. A variety of machinery aids in the chopping, spreading and mucking of straw. Straw displays appropriate insulating properties for cattle in cold climates.


Sand requires less mucking than straw or wood because the urine drains down to the base layer, often made of lime. It also provides a good footing material for animals, with increased grip and fewer claw problems. However, sand has many drawbacks. It can be heavy and does not absorb liquids. Unless carefully removed from the udder area before machine milking, abrasion can occur on both the udders and within the milking equipment. Sand freezes easily when wet, providing a hard, cold surface. Sand can only be used in certain slurry systems and often requires the purchase of a sand spreader.

Wood Chips, Shavings or Sawdust

Wood chips, shavings and sawdust are often used to bed show cattle and dairy cows. Wood materials are nonabrasive to skin, udders and hocks. The material limits bacterial growth. Sawdust is very fine and often suggested for usage on top of rubber mats. However, it can also be quite dusty and easily compactible. Commercial sawdust bedding often includes a disinfectant that helps to control bacteria growth.

Rubber Mat Systems

Many mat systems available for bedding dairy cattle can cause abrasions and painful hock injuries, especially when used in combination with sawdust or lime. Mats can also be slippery or move out of place. In general, the more expensive the mat system, the better it is.


Paper bedding is usually found in the form of shredded newsprint or other paper. It can also be short paper fibre, a byproduct of the pulping process. Short paper fibre is dried and mixed with lime, clay or other organic matter. A study by Marcinkowski and Adams of the University of Maine indicates that both paper and paper fibre mixes display high pH levels, resulting in a reduction of bacteria. The Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center Dairy concluded that recycled chopped newsprint provides a cost-efficient bedding material for lactating dairy cows. However, paper and paper materials can pack down and freeze in cold climates and it blows around easily in windy areas.

Municiple Solid Waste Compost

Municiple solid waste (MSW) represents a trend in cattle bedding materials beginning in the late 1990s. The result of composting of paper, food scraps and yard waste, MSW reduces the amount of organic materials in landfills. Over half of MSW is organic waste. MSW is beneficial for a feedlot cattle situation, especially yearling feedlot cattle that are in short feeding periods. University of Minnesota research indicates that MSW is a cheaper alternative to other feedlot bedding materials, including corn stalks and crop residues.

Crop By-products

Crop by-products include corn stover (or stalks), soybean residue and wheat straw. A study conducted by University of North Dakota researchers reveals that cattle bedded on wheat straw show a significant weight gain above those with no bedding. Cattle often eat corn stover, lowering their feed intake. Iowa State University Extension specialists recommend that cornstalks be moved to the bedding area after feeding the cattle, reducing the chance of the cattle eating the stalks and stover. Despite the eating of stover, cattle on stover still exhibit higher weight gains that feedlot cattle on no bedding. After crop by-products are no longer useful as bedding, they can be used as composting materials.

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