Clean, dry, and comfortable. Three words that describe the basic living conditions we expect to enjoy, and are all critical factors for raising healthy calves, too.
Additional considerations vary by season. In summer and fall months we want to help the calf stay cool in hot, humid weather. Fly control is critical in summer months. 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 material to do all this while the calf is loading the bedding with urine and manure each day.
According to the Midwest Planning Service, a 150-pound calf will crank out about 13 pounds or .21 cubic feet of manure and urine per day.
If so, we would be looking at (literally!) about 9 cubic feet during the first eight weeks if we were feeding for .5 to 1 pound of gain per day. I hope you are feeding for at least a pound of gain. While some of the urine will evaporate or run off, the vast majority has to be “handled” by the bedding.
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, rather 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.
Try the knee test
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 as if you (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 on-farm factors to consider. Quality factors include clean material free from dust and mold that can irritate calves (and calf feeder’s) eyes and respiratory systems. This time of year, controlling flies is an important consideration.
Consider using sand where practical — primarily in hutches on a well-drained base — to minimize fly breeding grounds as well as assist in calf cooling. Sand is not an acceptable bedding material for winter for calves in cold climates.
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 right.
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