Consider Deep Pack Barns for Cow Comfort and Manure Management

By A. Fay Benson

Cows relax as farmers tour a deep bedded pack barn in Vermont. Photo: A. Fay Benson

Small dairy farm operators may soon be faced with the prohibition of winter spreading of manure. Any farmer considering updating their barns should consider a style of barn that would provide manure storage plus animal comfort, and may be eligible for government assistance. That style of barn is a deep bedded pack (DBP) system.

In the past DBP were not allowed on dairy farms in New York due to Public Health rules enforced by Milk Inspectors. This is due to the potential of unsanitary conditions if the DBP aren’t managed correctly. Planning on the bedding material is critical to successful use and animal comfort. I had the opportunity to see DBP systems at work on farms in Vermont in both the winter and summer seasons this year. This type of system that incorporates animal feeding and manure storage into one open barn can be especially helpful to smaller grazing farms.

A DBP system generally consists of a foundation of concrete or hard clay. There may be a layer of gravel and then a bedding pack of straw, hay, sawdust or well-chipped wood shavings. Manure and urine mix into the bedding that remains in place for several months and is generally cleaned out once a year.

A deep pack system is different than a composting pack that is aerated in the barn daily by tiller or turning. Biologic activity taking place 5-7 inches deep in the pack provides the heat that cows enjoy through the winter months.

As with any type of housing structure, adequate bedding and good milking hygiene help manage the pathogens naturally found in a bedded pack system. The biggest complaint of owners of DBPs is the cost of the bedding material. This would be compounded on an organic dairy where it is required to use certified bedding.

Side retaining walls need to be strong enough to contain 4-6 feet of the pack and stand up to cleaning. Cow access, animal grouping, and travel-to-the-feed-alley patterns can be managed by electric fences which reduce manure in bedded areas.

The open barn area allows for natural animal movement, which will become increasingly important as animal care standards are implemented. In a DBP system, cows are able to lie down where they choose and can curl their heads around as they like, something they cannot do in tiestalls or stanchion barns.

Jack Lazor’s deep pack barn clean out for summer. The waterers have approximately six inches of line underneath so the waterers rise as the pack rises with more bedding applications. Photo: A. Fay Benson

Good ventilation – whether the barn is positioned to take advantage of geography for natural wind ventilation or uses mechanical assistance with fans – helps keep the cows healthy, the pack dry, and odors down.

This comfortable environment reduces lameness and provides for deep and restful sleep that in turn positively impacts milk production. A report given at the 5th National Small Farm Conference in 2009 reported that a 2000-lb. increase in milk sales per cow was attributed in part to use of a bedded pack management system (Conservation and Producer Benefits of a Bedded Pack Management System – Case Study).

Cow hygiene at milking is extremely important with cows housed on bedded pack, so cow washing and teat prep practices may have to be upgraded. This is due to the high bacteria count in the bedding. In spite of the bacterial population, operators usually report lower somatic cell counts on bedded pack as compared to freestalls or tie stalls. A 2009 study by the Cornell University Department of Applied Economics and Life Sciences concluded that the bedded pack management system was “an excellent environment for cattle and provided the intended environmental benefits.”

Opinions differ on just how much room should be allowed per cow from 70-85 to 100 sq. ft. per animal which is higher than what would be required for freestall style housing. Breed, age, and animal condition impact that decisionmaking when planning a new barn. The general consensus is the more room the better, making a DBP system better suited to smaller herds.

The Benefits of a Deep Pack Barn
  • Increases cow comfortCan increase milk production
  • Manure storage with less capital investment and less labor requirement than liquid storage
  • Pack manure mixed with extra carbon is a better soil nutrient then raw manure from typical manure storage.
  • Particularly adapted to grazing dairies since barns are used only 6 months and allow plenty of time to clean
  • An option for out-dated dairies looking for build a combined housing-feeding barn with manure storage
  • Enhances dairy farm conservation practices

Vermont Pack Barns Show Results

DBP barns have been used in Vermont since the state prohibited winter spreading of manure in 1995. A visit to some of these barns in January showed how the pack impacts cow comfort. The pack at Jack Lazor’s organic Butterworks Farm in Westfield, VT, registered a cozy 80 degrees F.

The bedding pack rises over time as more and more bedding is added throughout the winter. If watering systems are used on the pack to accommodate multiple groups, they need to accommodate this rise by placing a coil of water line underneath the waterer. As the pack rises, the waterer is lifted up. If there is only one group of animals or if all animals can get to the feed alley then the waterers should go there.

This past summer I visited Jack’s farm again. The 350-acre farm was established in 1979 making door-to-door deliveries of its own yogurt and cottage cheese. Today the farm includes its own granary, yogurt and cheesemaking with product distribution throughout Vermont and New Hampshire.

The third-generation farm milks a herd of 85 Jerseys on an 80-percent forage diet. From November to May the cows are housed in a 60-foot-wide, 120-foot-long, hoop-top barn. Straw is added for clean bedding twice a day. Approximately a bale and a half is used per day.

I arrived at the farm in August just as the compost piles were being aerated with a tractor-powered turner. The pack is moved from the barn in June after crop work is completed and the first cutting of hay is harvested. Jack uses a dump truck to move the manure from the barn to long rows in a field for composting.

He does not go through the required process to be Certified Organic Compost. He is mainly interested that the manure becomes “aged” so that it has stabilized most of the nutrients and is easier to spread in the fall. Jack described his reasoning for this timing by asking me when does nature apply its carbon and nutrients to the soil. Carbon and nutrients like dead grass, leaves and decaying roots are applied in the fall and decompose through the winter so they can be used in the spring for new growth.

I asked Jack about the significant expense of the straw for the pack: $80 every other day plus the labor of composting the pack. Jack said that the return is in the positive effect on the soil and soil nutrients.

“Raw manure is hard on the soil and the environment, many of the nutrients are volatile or water soluble. By adding the extra carbon through the straw more of the volatile nutrients are captured and stored. Allowing them to go through the biological activity of composting, the nutrients are stabilized and won’t run off with significant rain falls,” Jack said.

That said, Jack now harvests his own straw to use as bedding and reduce the cost of the DBP system at Butterworks Farm.

New York Farm Adds Pack Barn in 2010

In 2010, Ben and Kate Whittemore of Dead End Farm in Candor, NY, built a 70×250-foot bedded pack barn with a 16-foot feed alley and 16-foot scrape alley. The Whittemores operate an 80-cow organic dairy, raise grass-fed beef cattle and pigs, and have a free range flock of laying hens. They sell products from the farm by appointment and at area farmers’ markets. They were recognized as Super Milk producers in 2010.

“Our cows love the bedded pack barn with its thick cushy bedding and wide open space to kick up their heels,” Kate Whittemore writes in her farm blog. “Most of our cows will choose the bedded pack at night over the pasture.”

While using chopped hay in the pack was less expensive, it was more labor intensive and not as dry, and “since hay is in short supply this year, we plan to use a layer of bark and kiln-dried sawdust this winter,” Kate says.

“We built the new barn with cow comfort and health as your primary concerns. We were also interested in the benefit of the aged manure compared to slurry. We are waiting on results of a comparison of nutrients between the two, but I have to think the added organic matter in the bedded pack has value to our fields,” she adds.

Check on Funding Assistance

Because of the environmental benefits of a bedded pack system, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) may offer funding incentives for designs that pass their engineering specifications. Contact your local NRCS office to learn more.

For More Information

Bedded Pack Management System Case Study by John M. Thurgood, Paula C. Bagley, Challey M. Comer, Daniel J. Flaherty, Jason Karszes, Mariane Kiraly, Cornell University Department of Applied Economics and Life Sciences, September 2009

Conservation and Producer Benefits of a Bedded Pack Management System by John M. Thurgood, Cornell Cooperative Extension, and Brian K. LaTourette, Watershed Agricultural Council, 2007

NRCS Fact Sheet: Compost Bedded Pack Dairy Barns, June 2007

Video: Milking Time at Dead End Farm, Candor, NY, http://vimeo.com/31955654

A. Fay Benson, a dairy owner for 20 years, is a Small Dairy Support Specialist with Cornell University’s South Central NY Regional Team, Project Manager of the NY Organic Dairy Initiative, and a member of the NY Crop Insurance Education Team. He can be reached at the Cooperative Extension office in Cortland, NY, at 607-753-5213, afb3@cornell.edu. Freelance agricultural writer and publicist Kara Lynn Dunn assisted with the development of this article.

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