Secure straw to avoid winter shortage

Friday, 7 August 2020

Livestock farmers are encouraged to forward buy or secure their straw requirement, or look at alternative bedding options for this coming winter, sooner rather than later.

Straw yields could well be back this year. AHDB’s first harvest report points to lower than average yields for winter barley and OSR, and crop conditions in May were less robust than last year. This is in addition to a reduced winter cropping area.

If you haven’t done so already, now is the time to work out how much straw you will need for bedding and feeding over the winter in a worst-case scenario and calculate whether there will be a deficit. Planning ahead to secure any straw requirements or to seek alternative good-quality bedding options for the winter months is crucial.

Alternative options, such as sawdust, sand, waste paper, woodchip, crushed husk or calcium carbonate, can reduce the dependence on straw. But all bedding materials require careful management to provide optimal lying conditions and to maintain animal health and welfare. 

A good bedding material should be comfortable, non-abrasive, highly absorbent of water and urine, non-slippery and low in environmental bacteria. It is important to ensure that any bedding material has been screened to remove contaminants, such as nails, metals, glass and plastic, that could cause injury. It’s also worth re-examining materials even if they have passed through a magnetic process.

Alternative options can present different management challenges. When choosing a new bedding material, make sure it will keep your animals dry and clean, maintain a healthy environment and provide a comfortable, safe bed. When deciding how cost-effective a bedding material is, make sure it produces manure that can be applied to land and can be composted. It is also important to make sure the material is compatible with the farm’s slurry system.

Deep sand can be used in cubicle housing to provide a soft, comfortable and dry lying surface. Sand can also be used in deep litter yards, instead of straw, and as surface bedding material. Applying a layer of sand beneath the straw bedding will aid drainage to keep straw drier.

Whichever material is chosen, these top five tips can help reduce the amount of bedding required:

  1. Store bedding in a dry place.
  2. Ensure buildings are well-ventilated to eliminate moist air and help keep bedding dry.
  3. Ensure no water from gutters and water troughs gets onto bedding.
  4. Passageways should be scraped regularly to reduce the occurrence of muck and slurry being transferred onto cubicle beds via the cows’ feet.
  5. Keep cubicle surfaces dry and remove any soiled or damp bedding twice daily.

Products that must not be used for livestock bedding include poultry litter, gypsum, recycled rubber and woodchip produced from treated timber.

Further details are available at AHDB Bedding options.


Approximate price/t




Animal health and welfare considerations





Depending if it has been treated

If managed correctly, it offers a comfortable, clean bed

Needs to be changed regularly to maintain drainage


Damp sawdust can harbour mould spores

Easily spread to land.

Can ‘lock up’ nitrogen



Produces a clean, dust-free and well-drained bed


Accelerates wear on slurry/muck-handling equipment


Coarse sand may be too abrasive and can potentially cause mobility problems

Can be spread on the land, but be aware of long-term effect on soil pH




Depending on paper product

Easy to store and reasonably easy to dispose of

Must be removed once wet



Depending on product

Can heat up when wet to provide good conditions for pathogens to flourish.

Cattle can appear dirty

Can clump together, making spreading or composting difficult



Can be reused for many winters


Requires dry storage




Must be below 30% moisture content


May contain sharp objects which may cause injury

Can be

reused or

spread on the land

Crushed Husk


Can be mixed with other products, e.g. lime

Requires dry storage. Advisable to use an antibacterial bedding in conjunction



6–8%  moisture content

Doesn’t set hard on beds and remains free-flowing for cow comfort

Biodegradable so can be spread on land

Calcium carbonate


Doesn’t support bacterial growth

Highly alkaline and used on its own may cause damage to teat and udder skin


Doesn’t introduce bacteria to the bed

Can be spread on fields, but advisable to analyse soils first because of its alkaline nature

Table 1. Comparison of alternative bedding options.