Well-rested cows boost production

Written by Jason Nichols

Walk into either of the holding barns at Tri-Springs Jerseys and you’re likely to find several cows sleeping peacefully on a fresh layer of wood shavings.

What the cows are experiencing, says Will Moss, is a deep sleep cycle. It’s not unlike what humans have during a good night’s sleep, but it’s not as common for cattle.

“You’ll go into a barn and see a cow laid out,” Moss says. “She’s actually in deep sleep. You have to physically touch her to get her up and get out of the barn. The cow comfort is just remarkable.”

About eight years ago, Will’s parents, Paul and Sarah Moss, attended a conference on compost bedded pack barns in Minnesota. They returned to their farm, Tri-Springs Jerseys, in Cottage Grove, Tenn., convinced that this type of innovation was something to look into.

The process is fairly simple. Cows are housed in a large open area inside a barn that is topped with a fresh layer of sawdust or fine wood shavings. The bedding, composed of manure, urine and the wood shavings, is tilled two times each day to keep the mixture dry and encourage the chemical reactions that start the composting process. The barn is fully cleaned twice annually and the process starts over.

Not only does this provide comfortable bedding for the herd and aid in the farm’s nutrient management program, the compost produces heat, which increases cow comfort in winter months. Will says the heat remains 120–140 degrees at the bottom of the bedding material.

“Once we started, our milk quality got better,” Will says. “Our somatic cell count improved, and we didn’t have the mastitis issues. “

“The cows are so much more comfortable,” he says. “They’ve got the cushion of the pack and the sawdust when they go in the barn. ”

There are some drawbacks to this form of alternative bedding.

First is the cost associated with the sawdust or wood shavings. Will says a trailer-load is necessary every two weeks. Second is finding a quality source for the materials. Tri-Springs Jerseys procures wood shavings from a vendor in Alabama. However, since the Mosses have found their cows to be productive longer in this setting, the additional milk production may offset increased costs.

Will remembers when he was young, how cows were often bedded in similar barns with a simple layer of straw on top.

Animal health was a constant problem, with high somatic cell counts and frequent mastitis flare-ups.

“When mom and dad told me about this, I thought we were going to kill every cow we’ve got,” Will says. “I was pretty reluctant. The important part is tilling the compost every day and keeping it dry. We have fans running 24 hours a day in the barns.”

An added benefit has been increased efficiency and simplicity of the farm’s nutrient management program. Will says between 60 percent and 70 percent of the manure on the farm stays in the barns, with the rest going into a lagoon. This is especially important in a state like Tennessee, where farmers are prohibited from spreading manure on fields between mid-November and mid-March. Keeping the manure in the barns has also doubled the capacity of herd the lagoon can handle.

Increasing capacity is something Will has always had his eye on. After graduating from high school, Will attended Murray State University in Kentucky. He graduated with a degree in agronomy and took a job with Henry Farmers Co-Op in nearby Paris, Tenn.