If you wouldn’t spend the night on it, why should your calf?

The overall objective for calf bedding is to keep the calf clean, dry and comfortable – all critical factors for successfully raising healthy, happy calves.
Seasons. Additional considerations vary by season. In summer and fall months we want to help the calf stay cool in hot, humid weather. We also want to minimize fly populations.
In cold months, we need enough “fluff” to the bedding that the calf can nestle in to preserve body heat and avoid drafts.
Sounds simple, but we are asking the bedding to do all this while the calf is loading the bedding with urine and manure each day. How much? Good question.
Since I really don’t want to catch and weigh all of the urinary and manure output for a group of calves from birth to weaning, I went to the MidWest Plan Service Livestock Waste Facilities Handbook for help.
Volume. According to the service, a 150-pound calf will crank out roughly 13 pounds or .21 cubic feet of manure and urine per day.
Assuming that to be in the ballpark, we would be looking at about 9 cubic feet during the first eight weeks if we were feeding for one-half pound to 1 pound of gain per day.
While some of the urine will evaporate or run off, the vast majority has to be “handled” by the bedding.
Even if we go with half of that projected production, we’re still looking at a lot of manure.
The most absorbent common bedding material is shredded newspaper.
Following paper, relative absorbencies generally fall out as: chopped mature hay, straw, dried softwood (pine) shavings/sawdust, peanut hulls and hardwood sawdust/shavings.
If sawdust is not dried (sometimes referred to as “green” sawdust) before use, it can be up to 3 times less absorbent than dried sawdust.
Sand doesn’t absorb anything – the liquids can drain through the sand.
These different bedding materials can all work well or fail miserably, depending on how well they are managed.
Tests. The “knee test” is an often-cited measure of bedding management. Drop to your knees and stay there for a minute or so on the bedding. If your knees are wet or cold when you get up, there isn’t enough bedding.
The calf’s knees can also be used to evaluate bedding condition. If there is any dampness, manure, or bedding and manure buildup on a calf’s knees, bedding management is not good enough.
I prefer what I call the bedder test. Bed it as if you or I (the bedder) were spending the day or night on it. If the bedder wouldn’t want to spend the next 12 hours living there, why would they think the calf would?
Most bedding materials can work well if managed well. Quality, consistency, availability, cost and handling will be additional on-farm factors to consider.
Quality. Quality factors include clean material free from dust and mold that can irritate calves (and calf feeder’s) eyes and respiratory systems.
What we choose to bed with and how we manage it are two separate, but important, factors in providing the calf with the opportunity to do well. Let’s get them both right.

About the Author

(Dianne Shoemaker is an OSU Extension dairy specialist located at the extension center in Wooster, Ohio.) More Stories by Dianne Shoemaker

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