compost bedded pack barns for dairy

Dairy specialists say compost bedded pack barns can be a good option for dairy operations, increasing productivity by improving cow comfort. 

Ted Probert, dairy specialist with the University of Missouri Extension, says cattle comfort has changed the landscape for some dairy farms.

There have been several compost bedded pack barns built on dairy farms in his southwest Missouri area in recent years.

“There have been some built around here,” he says. “There would have been more if not for the downturn in the dairy economy.”

Probert says there are a few reasons why producers switch to the pack barns, but the top one is getting cattle more comfortable, which can help make them more efficient and productive.

“Cow comfort is one of the main benefits,” Probert says. “A comfortable cow is a productive cow.”

The cows in the compost bedded pack barn have better feed intake, he says, which leads to better milk production.

Probert says the pack bedding in the barns has to be agitated or stirred up twice a day, and then the whole barn is cleaned out once or twice a year. In many setups, cattle have access to pasture as well.

When considering a compost bedded pack barn, dairy producers should make sure they have access to bedding materials, such as sawdust. Probert says one reason the barns work well in southwest Missouri is easy access to sawdust from local mills.

Space is also a consideration, as producers need at least 100 square feet per cow.

Joe Zulovich, MU Extension ag engineer, says it is also important to keep good ventilation, which can involve natural ventilation and using large-diameter ceiling fans or large-diameter circulating fans.

“Fans need to be variable speed so air speed can be kept low during cold weather and kept high during warm and hot weather,” he says. “Good air movement in hot weather helps with cow comfort.”

When it comes to the bedding, Zulovich says moisture management is key.

“Relatively fine sawdust and wood shavings work best because they can be easily mixed and have only a medium absorbency, which is critical for pack moisture management,” he says. “Highly absorbent bedding sources are not desirable because they hold moisture too well, resulting in a wet, mucky bedding pack.”

The initial bedding material base should be at least 12 inches deep when starting a new pack, and the daily stirring with a cultivator or tiller should be to a depth of 4 to 6 inches to mix manure and maintain moisture, Zulovich says.

Barn length and width can vary to fit the needs of the dairy operation, and what producers build can depend on what they have in place and their particular setup.

“Dairies that already have feed and water facilities can add a bedding pack barn to provide a comfortable resting option,” Zulovich says. “Dairies that have no existing feeding facilities need to develop a complete barn system to provide feed and water access along with the bedded pack resting area. Basically a complete bedded pack barn is like developing a freestall barn plan but substituting bedded pack areas for freestalls.”

Joe Horner, an MU dairy specialist and ag economist, says compost bedded pack barns are a cheaper alternative to traditional free stall barns, and they have a lot of appeal for producers. They work especially well with herd sizes of 300 or smaller, he says.

“They are probably the most cow comfort-friendly, animal welfare-friendly choice,” he says. “… For the herd sizes that we typically handle in Missouri, compost bedded pack barns are a good option.”

Ben Herrold is Missouri field editor, writing for Missouri Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.