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  Tuesday January 27th, 2015    

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Cow comfort improved in compost dairy barns (02/23/2006)
by Marcia Endres, University of Minnesota Extension Service

Many compost dairy barns are being built in Minnesota, but there are still many questions about these barns.

Therefore, we at the University of Minnesota decided that the first step to learning more about how compost barns were functioning was by interviewing producers using the system. During this process we also collected bedding and milk samples, observed and evaluated cow behavior, summarized cow records, and scored cows for locomotion, body condition, hygiene and hock lesions.

Results so far have shown that compost barns can be a very good alternative for housing dairy cows. Like any system, they require optimum management to work properly. Special attention should be given to milking prep procedures and maintenance of minimum space per cow (ideally more than 85 sq. ft/cow) to avoid high levels of somatic cell counts (SCC).

Some herds have been able to achieve low levels of somatic cell counts (SCC) in this system. The SCC range on 11 farms was from 200,000 to 650,000, with an average of 325,000. So there is still room for improvement.

Excellent cow prep milking procedures are a must, especially with a compost dairy barn facility. Bedding bacterial counts averaged over nine million colonies, with some culture results as high as 23 million. It is also important to aerate the pack at least two times per day to eliminate cow pies and dry the bedding surface.

Most producers mentioned cow comfort and longevity as the main reasons to adopt this housing system. We scored cows for locomotion and hock injuries as indicators of cow comfort. We were pleased to find that only 0.97% of cows had swollen hocks. That compares with 1.8% for sand stalls and 14.1% for mattress stalls in a study we conducted last year.

Even more dramatic are the results we found for lameness prevalence. Only 7.8% of the cows were lame, with two herds having no lame cows at the time of our visit. That compares very favorably to 24.6% lameness prevalence in a study we recently conducted with cows housed in free stalls. This is a strong indication that cow comfort is improved in compost dairy barns.

One concern expressed by some producers and their veterinarians was dust, which could cause eye irritation or pneumonia. This raises the question about air quality in these barns, and our team has submitted grant proposals for studies that will include air quality analysis.

For the producers we interviewed, bedding availability was their main concern. Most producers inquired about other sources of bedding, besides sawdust. We plan on conducting follow-up studies to investigate other materials. We have been contacted by a couple of dairy producers who are using ground soybean straw with success. One of the producers indicated that the material is actually less dusty than sawdust and can be stirred as well as sawdust.

However, our University of Minnesota agronomists and soil scientists are concerned about the removal of straw from the fields and the resulting negative carbon credits. One of the soil scientists also cautions that, "With soybean straw, harvesting it from sloping fields is not recommended, since there would be nothing left to protect the soil from erosion."

These results are part of a presentation during the annual Minnesota Dairy Days held in January, 2006 at nine locations around the state. The results will be posted in our website http://www.extension.umn.edu/dairy/dairydays06" 


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