Compost Without Shavings South Dakota dairy decides to use chopped straw instead

June 10, 2009 07:00 PM

With shavings in short supply, John and
Annelies Seffrood use finely chopped rye straw in their three compost barns.
Where there is a will, there is usually a way. John and Annelies Seffrood use three compost barns at their South Dakota dairy: one to house heifers, one for close-up cows and heifers and a third for transition cows. Since there are few trees in their state and even fewer wood shavings, the Seffroods knew they needed a different bedding source. Plus, an E. coli mastitis outbreak at other shavings-bedded freestalls made them leery of wood.

Farmers in their northeast part of the state grow a lot of wheat and small grains, so straw seemed the natural choice. They settled on finely chopped rye straw.

The Seffroods, who milk 1,200 cows near Summit, S.D., couldn't be happier with the results. They had used bedded straw packs in two of the barns prior to composting. But the bedded packs had to be cleaned out every three months.

Then John read an article about compost barns, showed it to Annelies and they decided to give it a try. "With composting, we've cut straw use in half,” John says. "And in our experience, you can go a year to 14 months without having to clean out the barn.”

Rather than use big bales and a tub grinder, the Seffroods use a custom forage chopper to process the straw to 1" in length. The processed straw is stored in 12' silo bags. This past fall, they put up 1,700 tons of straw in 10 and a half bags.

The Seffroods use a dump wagon and spread straw with a tractor to bed pens in the transition barn two to three times a week, adding 1" to 2" of bedding each time. The barn is then roto-tilled twice a day to keep the compost mixed.

The 8' roto-tiller, powered by a 100-hp tractor, mixes the compost to a depth of 8" to 12". Once a week, the Seffroods go through the barn with a five-shank subsoiler and rip up the pack to a depth of 2' to loosen and aerate it.

"Adding straw is not a science, it's an art. You need to keep the pack dry; too wet and the composting action stops,” John says.

You also can't overcrowd barns. "We like to have 80 to 90 sq. ft. per cow. Any less than that and the pack gets too wet,” he says.

The three barns, each 70' wide with lengths of 100', 210' and 250', are all Cover-All barns. Each is equipped with a ridge vent running the length of the building. The Seffroods think this venting is essential, since the pack releases moisture—especially when it is turned. Without the vents, moisture would build up and condense on the fabric ceiling and rigid supports.

John acknowledges that his herd's somatic cell count, at 350,000 to 400,000, is higher than he'd like. "My SCC problems are not associated with the compost barn,” he says. "We give the California Mastitis Test to every cow going dry and coming fresh, and have not seen an increase in mastitis in the dry period.”

In fact, the herd's SCC levels started to drift down to 250,000 this past fall with more heifers transitioning through the compost barns.

Bonus content:

More on compost barns

More on Cover-All Buildings

What bedding works

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