ELLINGTON - No matter what trade you practice, efficiency is key. When that trade is farming, efficiency is everything. Many farmers accept that quitting time occurs when the work is done, or when the sun goes down; and if a farmer is facing the latter, it's likely not been a very efficient day.
For this reason, when a farmer can find a way to reduce workload without hurting the overall quality of their farm, many will consider doing so.
When a farmer can find a way to reduce workload while improving the overall quality of their farm, the decision to do so often doesn't seem like much of a decision at all.
Cows use sand as bedding at Breeze Acres in Ellington.
P-J photos by Remington Whitcomb
Using sand as bedding for dairy cattle is a practice that started around 20 years ago and is starting to gain notoriety.
According to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, most dairy producers today planning new facilities will at least consider sand bedding as an option. Some farmers love it, while others are unsure about it, mostly because it is so different from traditional mattresses or organic bedding.
At Breeze Acres in Ellington, Roger tenPas believes the efficiency and quality gained by using sand as bedding is too great to not use the practice.
BENEFITS FOR COWS
While many agricultural cooperatives and administrations will admit that sand as bedding is not practical for every farm, those who have made the transition into sand as bedding have found the practice to be very copacetic, according to OMAFRA.
"The cows seem to find the sand to be more comfortable than (organic bedding)," said Shawn Dutton, employee at Breeze Acres. "It seems like on hot summer days the sand stays a bit cooler and the cows seem to appreciate that."
Those who have walked barefoot on the beach on a hot day might disagree, however, this is a somewhat skewed perspective. While sand is good at absorbing heat, it is poor at retaining it. Because the sand bedding is kept in the barn and away from the sun, it is not absorbing radiant heat like sand on the beach would. Furthermore, the sand laid in the barn is more likely to reflect the temperature of the cool concrete floor it is laid upon, rather than the temperature of the air. For these reason, it is logical that cows appreciate sand bedding as a cooler alternative to organic bedding on hot summer days.
According to the OMAFRA, one of the most obvious benefits of sand bedding is the reduction in the number of cows with swollen hocks, missing hair from hocks and knee injuries. OMAFRA field surveys indicated that on average, 9 percent of cows experienced swollen hocks with mattresses, compared to 0 percent with sand bedding.
Additionally, producers also report better footing and fewer problems with slipping in alleyways. Research indicates that cows which have sand as bedding experience more uniform hoof wear, which could indicate an overall improvement in traction. Field experience by OMAFRA suggests that less trimming is needed with sand bedding.
IMPROVEMENT OF CONDITIONS
In order to ensure the welfare of the cows, Breeze Acres takes culture samples of the sand every month to test the total bacteria count contained in the sand. Occasionally samples will be taken more often to ensure quality.
"Our culture samples have been coming back as absolutely excellent lately," said Dutton. "We're told that anything that comes back with a total bacteria count of under 1 million is acceptable. Right now our culture samples are coming back with a total bacteria count of around 65,000. A lot of people don't realize how great sand is. They think bedding with the sand and washing it with dirty water, you're going to get a lot of bacteria built up, but that's simply not the case."
While sand requires dedicated land for cleaning and drying, farmers that have access to such land, such as Breeze Acres, appreciates sand can be reused almost indefinitely, as very little sand is lost in the cleaning process.
"From the time that sand leaves the barn to the time it's ready to go back in is usually about four to six weeks," said Dutton. "Sometimes we'll need to get into it a little bit sooner than that, but for the most part four to six weeks is just about perfect."
The system used to clean the sand at Breeze Acres is a relatively simple yet effective one.
When it's time to clean the barn, flush valves move the sand, water and refuse to the opposite end of the barn, where sand gets caught and transported to the sand lane.
"We flush the barns eight times per day," said Dutton. "Finally, at night, workers take a skid-steer to the barn and the entire barn gets cleaned."
The sand lane is a concrete alley with water running constantly through it. As the water hits the sand, much of the manure will dissolve in the water and move toward a ditch which empties into two lagoons: one which collects large solid particles and one which collects smaller particles.
After a few days, sand at the beginning of the sand lane is scooped and placed in a pile to dry, while the entire contents of the sand land is then pushed back towards the beginning so the process can start again and clean any sand that may have made its way down the lane by the current of the water.
Once sand is scooped to dry, it moves along a system of piles, which allows it to become progressively more dry as it moves from pile to pile. Since sand at the bottom of the pile won't dry as quickly as sand on the top, each pile is turned and moved every two days to allow buried sand to dry. Breeze Acres utilizes a five-pile system, however depending on the total amount of sand used, each individual farmer would know best how many piles is best.
"The beauty of the system is that everything we use is reclaimed sand," said Dutton. "Every once and a great while, we'll need to buy a couple of loads of sand to get the stock pile back up because we lose a little in the lagoon, but for the most part what we have is what we started with. I would say 95 percent of what we have is reclaimed sand. With the price of (organic bedding) nowadays, this is absolutely the way to go."
Even the water which is used to clean the sand is recycled in a way. Once the water leaves the second lagoon, it is pumped back up to the top of Breeze Acres farm, where it is used to once again flush the barns.
With regards to milking, sand will stick to cows udders, especially if it is very fine. This can be remedied by wiping the udder with a damp cloth towel.
One of the obvious draws that sand as bedding has toward farmers is the very reasonable price which sand can be purchased. Where organic bedding can fluctuates around $40 to $50 per ton, operating costs of sand at $8 to $10 per ton are comparatively low.
For producers who have access to organic bedding that is free and readily available, it usually still needs a dedicated storage facility, which could actually make it more expensive.
WELFARE OF COWS
While cows cannot say for themselves what treatment they prefer best, milk production often crests or dips depending on the cow's temperament. Dutton believes that sand as bedding makes the cows more comfortable and in return the cows seem to produce a higher yield of milk.
"I absolutely think that the sand has made the cows happier, and a happier cow is a cow that is going to produce more milk," said Dutton. "The beds are soft and comfortable and they're more (sanitary) than most kept with (organic bedding) - it's hard to find a fault with regards to the cow's comfort."