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A recent article in Bovine Veterinarian on lying behavior in calves caught my attention. While the research was conducted with dairy calves around weaning, beef producers can learn from the results of the research. Dairy calves spent 86 percent of their time lying down. As they grow older, the time spent lying decreases. Additionally, calves with a fever increased lying time by 44 minutes per day. Behavioral studies with beef cattle have focused primarily on heavier finishing cattle. Iowa researchers reported that 900-pound steers in a bedded pack barn spent 42 percent of their time lying down.

If cattle are going to spend this amount of time lying down, good husbandry dictates that they be given a comfortable place to lie. Not surprisingly, studies have shown that calves spend more time lying and less time walking when housed with dry bedding versus wet bedding or concrete.

What is the purpose of bedding?

During the winter, bedding serves as a cushion from the hard ground or concrete. This makes it more comfortable for them to get up and down. Being more comfortable they will spend time resting and ruminating. This alleviates stress and increases feed efficiency. Bedded cattle are cleaner, with less mud and manure on their hides. For finished cattle, this is an important food safety concern. Additionally, a cleaner coat is a better insulator against cold and wind. Finally, bedding insulates cattle from the cold ground or concrete. Better insulation from a dry hair coat and the cold ground reduces their maintenance requirements, thus increasing gain and feed efficiency.

Calves have more surface area per pound and generally have less insulating fat than a cow so they lose heat more easily and need more bedding.

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What type of bedding?

Bedding materials can be straw, corn stover, old hay, soybean residue, wood chips/shavings or paper. North Dakota researchers evaluated soybean residue, oat straw, wheat straw and corn stover. They concluded that wheat straw or corn stover was preferred. The bedding you choose should be determined primarily by availability and price.

What’s the effect on animal performance?

North Dakota has evaluated bedding levels and types in several locations. Finishing steer performance was improved when using either 20 or 35 pounds of bedding per animal compared to little or no bedding.

Pooled analysis of studies with finishing cattle in Colorado and South Dakota showed an increase in average daily gain and feed efficiency of 7 percent.

Computer models that include the influence of environmental factors in evaluating rations predict a reduction in average daily gain (ADG) of nearly 20 percent when feeder cattle have mud and manure on their hides.

The reduction in animal gain and efficiency is due to the increase in maintenance requirements. This change is due to the animal’s ability to self-regulate temperature. Under cold stress brought on by a wet hair coat and wind chill more energy is required for the cow to maintain its temperature. Therefore, it’s critical to keep the animal dry and out of the wind for animal comfort and to reduce the cost of production.

What is bedding and shelter worth?

The table shows the results of an analysis using the Large Ruminant Nutrition System (http://nutritionmodels.tamu.edu/lrns.html).

Cattle with mud and manure on their sides have a lower critical temperature, reducing gains from 1.5 pounds per day to 1.1 pounds per day. Over a 150-day backgrounding period, this is a loss of 45 pounds; at $2 per pound, that’s a $90 reduction in income. If we use a bedding rate of 5 pounds per head per day, we need 750 pounds of bedding. At $90, you can afford to spend up to $240 per ton for bedding. Evaluating from the nutritional cost, the model predicts that it would take nearly $25 per head in additional energy supplement to reach the 1.5-pound ADG. From an animal welfare standpoint, it’s difficult to argue that it is acceptable not to use bedding; adding the financial benefit further makes the case.

Bedding requirements

The amount of bedding needed is determined by housing and animal type. Calves need more bedding than cows. They have more surface area per pound and, therefore, lose heat more easily. Generally, they also have less insulating fat than a cow in good body condition. Cows, in fact, can be quite comfortable with no bedding if they have a windbreak and can lie on clean snow or dry ground.

For calves housed in a barn where rain and snow are excluded a minimum of 2.5 to 5 pounds per head per day should be used. If bedded outside with a windbreak, then the amount can easily be doubled, depending on the amount of precipitation. Dr. Mary Smith, veterinarian at the Cornell Ambulatory Clinic, likes to use the knee test. If her knees get wet when she kneels on the bedding, then more bedding needs to be added. The smell test can also be used. If you smell ammonia at the surface (that’s where the calf’s head is when it’s lying down), then bedding should be added.

With winter upon us, as an animal caretaker it’s up to you to ensure that your cattle are comfortable. Evaluate cattle cleanliness and utilize the knee and smell test. Make sure you have the bedding necessary. When you take care of your cattle, they will take care of you.