With straw prices set to rocket this winter, Chloe Palmer weighs up the alternative bedding sources.
A dry spring and the wet end to harvest has caused a perfect storm for straw yields, meaning price and availability are likely to be major issues for livestock farmers.
Many may be looking at alternative materials for loose housing, but it is important to consider the pros and cons of each.
James Ruggeri, industry development executive with Hybu Cig Cymru, says there are few bedding materials which match straw in terms of its bedding qualities and composting potential.
He says: “Woodchip has proved popular in outdoor coral systems, but some farmers have found it to be less suitable for indoor housing, as some woodchip is less absorbent and can take two to three years to compost.
“Bracken came out well in our study, but it is only available in certain areas and is potentially carcinogenic.
"Traditionally, it was used for bedding in many upland areas, as it provides a warm, comfortable bed and composts well, but harvesting it can be difficult.”
Despite the spike in straw price this year, Mr Ruggeri believes many farmers will continue to buy it, but will use it sparingly.
He says: “If farmers can obtain straw, they will need to factor in this year’s higher price into their costs of production. Many are looking at leaving livestock out longer or making more use of slatted housing where they can.”
Straw is the most popular and widely available bedding material, because it has good thermal properties and moderate absorption capacity.
It composts to form an excellent manure and can be stored easily.
Barley straw is a robust straw and lasts longer than wheat straw, which is quite brittle and breaks down easily. Barley and oat straw are both palatable.
Woodchip can provide a free draining bed for indoor sheep and cattle on relatively dry diets.
Woodchip should ideally be about 20 per cent moisture content and no more than 30 per cent.
Woodchip will be most cost effective where it is produced on-farm, because if bought-in, it is likely to be more expensive than straw.
Wood chipped from on-farm sources, such as woodlands or hedgerows, must be dried for between six and 12 months beforehand. Most tree and shrub species are suitable, but larch has a tendency to splinter.
Woodchip should be spread to a depth of 100mm and fresh material applied every seven to 10 days. Woodchip offers animal health and welfare benefits, due to limited bacterial growth and low levels of dust.
Paper for bedding is available in a variety of different materials which vary considerably in terms of absorbency and suitability. All are deemed waste, so the appropriate waste exemption licence will be required.
Prepared paper wastes are not usually easily obtained from source; they have to be bought-in from bedding companies, which increases cost.
Kiln dried paper crumb is one of the best options, as moisture content is reduced to 10 per cent, giving high absorbency and good thermal properties. It is comfortable for livestock and produces very little dust.
However, clumping can occur and, when spread to land, some nitrogen in soil may be used up as the product decomposes.
Bracken is abundant in upland areas and fronds are cut in late summer or autumn when they are brown. They are then baled using conventional machinery.
Bracken is highly absorbent with a moisture content of about 24 per cent. It can be stored easily, it produces a comfortable bed and livestock generally avoid eating it.
Studies suggest bracken may cause bladder lesions or carcinomas and haemorrhages in cattle; similar issues have occurred in sheep, although they are thought to be more tolerant.
There is little guidance available in relation to reducing these risks and problems seem to occur more frequently in areas where bracken bedding is used.
Reed canary grass and miscanthus have been grown and used in some areas with success, as both are absorbent and compost easily, but mould can be a problem if not dried correctly.
Availability is the main limiting factor and both are often more expensive than straw.
Chopped oilseed rape straw is easily obtained in some parts of the country, but is very stalky and has low absorbency. It is recommended to use it in combination with cereal straw.
Woodchip products composed entirely of virgin pine are growing in popularity because of their increased absorbency and anti-bacterial properties.
Although relatively expensive, a growing number of farmers are using these products in lambing pens due to the reduced incidence of infections in lambs bedded on it.
Many bedding products such as paper and recycled woodchip and sawdust are defined as a waste product and so require a Waste Exemption.
The precise rules for waste exemptions differ between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, so it is vital to check requirements before ordering these materials.
Scams involving the supply of materials entirely unsuitable for bedding are also widespread and a number of farmers have incurred huge disposal costs and fines as a result.
Farmers are advised to make detailed checks as to the source of materials and to inspect thoroughly on arrival before accepting deliveries.