What are your bedding options?

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Wheat fields are thin and straw is hard to find this year. Straw price went sky high last winter and appears to be staying there for 2019. Some farmers who have high-quality wheat have been talking about $75 to 100 per ton for unbaled wheat straw in the field.

As you weigh your options, be sure to consider alternative agronomic crop fodder or cover crops as a bedding source. The two most common beddings, wheat straw and sawdust, are both already in short supply across the state.

Precut rye straw

The first harvestable option is to look at cover crops you or a neighbor have planted and have not been able to kill with all the recent rains. One option that has gained some popularity is precut rye straw.

There are two options when making precut straw, both of them take place just after the head emerges but before pollination and seed formation. The most common process is to spray the rye with glyphosate and let stand in the field as it dries and bleaches yellow.

The Pre Harvest Interval (PHI) for cereals on some glyphosate products is seven days between application and grazing or harvest.

The best rye straw comes from having a couple tenths of rain on the rye, removing the wax from the plants. Once plants are dry, mow and leave lay for a day then rake and bale.

The other option is to mow and let lay in wide windrows until dry for baling. Usually, the rye needs tedded at least twice in order to get it dry.

Average yields for rye straw are 1 1/2 to 2 tons per acre; it is recommended that you do not use spring nitrogen fertilizer because it causes rye to lodge if rates are too high.

Seeding rates of one bushel or less tend to allow for more air movement within the rye, helping it dry faster. While this is becoming a more common practice with rye, it could also work with wheat and allow for earlier soybean planting. Remember, we will be removing some phosphorous and potassium in the straw.

Corn, soybean stubble

More producers are moving to baling residue that is left over after harvesting corn and soybeans. This can be a great bedding source, but also removes coverage that helps prevent winter soil erosion.

One option may be to bale the residue and then plant a cover crop to protect the soil from erosion and maintain organic matter. While we may bring the residue back in manure, the cover crop helps prevent erosion. Even if it is oats that does not overwinter, the cover helps avoid erosion.

On average, one ton of residue is produced per 40 bushels of corn or 30 bushels of soybeans. This leads to about 2 tons/acre of soybean stubble and 4 to 5 tons/acre of corn stalks to harvest.

Soybean stubble is dusty, but can be fairly easy to bale as long as you don’t have green stems. Often when making soybean stubble straw, you remove the spreader to make windrows but leave the chopper on, either slowing it down or removing the knifes so that it is sized but not dust.

This creates windrows that can be baled within hours of combining, making it easier to bale than corn stalks. Soybean residue does wear more on balers than wheat straw but is gentler than corn stalks.

Another challenge is that soybean stubble bales need stored inside so that they do not get wet and rot.

Corn stalks are very commonly used for feed and bedding. The challenge is with falls like this past year, it rains every two days and corn harvest is delayed, thus it can be difficult to make dry corn stalks for bedding.

Corn stalks are much harder on harvest equipment than wheat straw; some older square balers struggle to make stalk bales and need the knotters cleaned more often than with other crops.

Some producers make corn stalk bedding by windrowing the cobs, leaves, and a few stalks that come out of the combine. This leads to low tonnage yields and more wear on the pickup, but less erosion.

The more common method is to use a flail mower to mow the stalks and chop them; a bush hog can work, but this does not size the stalks as well.

After stalks are mowed and dry, they are raked and baled.

With both corn stalks and soybean stubble, nutrients are removed from your field (see Table 1 to calculate nutrient removal).

bedding options chart

Will it absorb moisture

It is also important to make sure your bedding will be able to keep your barn dry. A study from Canada revealed that wheat straw actually holds less pounds of water per pound of bedding than other crop residues.

If the bedding material weighed 1 pound before soaking and 3.5 pounds after, the absorbency factor is: (3.5 – 1) = 2.5, which means the material has the capacity to hold 2.5 times its weight in water.

Other options

There are a few alternative bedding sources, some of which are more expensive. Some are also tasty but have low digestibility, leading to decreased feed efficiency.

Most organic materials can be used for bedding, including kiln-dried sawdust, shavings, shredded/chopped paper, barley and oats straw, over-mature hay or low-quality hay made from waterways and buffer strips if not in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).

Just because you need straw doesn’t mean it will be a profitable decision to keep a poor wheat stand that will have low yields and low straw tonnage.

One last option is to purchase straw from out of state, but the riskiest part of this option is the potential for importing noxious weeds onto your farm that are herbicide resistant.

(This information was originally published in the Buckeye Dairy News, the enewsletter of Ohio State University Extension’s dairy team.)

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