The great bedding debate
By Lilian SchaerFeatures Barn Management
The type of bedding used in poultry barns has a great impact on flocks. In this article, experts debate the pros and cons of wood shavings, straw and peat.
The type of bedding used in poultry barns has a great impact on the air quality inside those facilities. They come with other pros and cons too, which was a hot topic of discussion at a Poultry Industry Council event hosted in Guelph, Ontario this past winter.
Wood by-products like shavings are considered the gold standard of poultry bedding, according to Christoph Wand, livestock sustainability specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA).
The small particle size has good moisture absorption and improves air quality by keeping dust down. As well, saponins and resins in the wood are likely microbial inhibitors, which can contribute to better bird health. Wand also works with composting bedded pack dairy barns, and they’ve been experiencing challenges with the supply, logistics and cost of wood products, he says.
“Wood products have doubled and almost tripled in five years by the time it is at the barn – that’s in dairy so it’s likely not much different for poultry,” he says, adding that pandemic-driven mill shutdowns and higher trucking and fuel costs are helping to make wood pricier.
Straw is one option for poultry bedding, and according to Sarah Minler of The Straw Boss in Mount Elgin, Ontario, their dust-extracted chopped straw pellet product is most widely used by broiler breeder and broiler producers.
“We grind up the straw more finely and send it through a pelletizer. The straw is heat-treated, which helps kill any salmonella, bacteria, or mould from the field etc, and makes it a super-clean bedding,” she explains, with the pelletized straw then crumbled to lay flat on the barn floor.
From an air quality perspective, the straw pellets are dust-extracted and it’s either blown into two-storey barns or applied with a spreader on the ground floor, which keeps dust to a minimum, she adds. A thin layer is applied, and the crumbled pellets expand and grow with the birds, resulting in about a one-inch layer of bedding.
“When it’s going back on the land, the manure value is greater than shavings or chopped straw from a nutrient perspective,” she says, adding the pellets wick away moisture to keep the barn very dry, which also improves air quality.
The first seven days are the most important days in a bird’s life, so a dust-free, dry environment gets them off to a good start – and is more enjoyable for barn workers too. Virtually all of their straw comes from wheat and is sourced locally as much as possible.
From a cost perspective, pellets are more expensive than chopped straw, but require less handling, trucking and storage on-farm. Minler says Straw Boss supplies poultry producers within a three-hour radius of its southwestern Ontario location.
After 15 years of growing layer pullets, Ryan Kuntze built a broiler barn in 2017 and had his first experiences with poultry bedding. Disappointment with his straw bedding led to a search for alternatives and a neighbour suggested giving peat moss a try. Kuntze was impressed and with two barns in production today, he not only uses peat moss exclusively, but also distributes it.
Peat moss offers superior absorption, he notes, and provides an environment that insects, flies and darkling beetles, which can carry disease, don’t like, resulting in a natural way to control pests. Peat moss is also generally accepted as a good soil amendment and when mixed with chicken manure, becomes a great source of fertilizer and organic matter for the soil. And there are welfare benefits too, with peat bedding giving birds a chance to express natural behaviours like foraging, scratching, and dust bathing.
The picture is admittedly less clear when it comes to peat moss and air quality, although in Kuntze’s own experience, his old cage layer barn was dustier than the peat-bedded broiler facilities he has now.
“Air quality can be a challenge if it’s not managed properly and it’s a challenge across the industry because of the nature of the barn environment,” he says.
His Naturesorb peat product is harvested and packaged in Quebec, and although the approximately 1,500 km it needs to travel to get to his farm is a disadvantage, Kuntze says peat moss nonetheless remains cost competitive.
“We’re cheaper than wood shavings and straw pellets, about 50 per cent of the cost of those two specific products. For farmers that are using their own straw, we’re a bit more expensive but that also depends on the supply,” he explains. “(Straw) price is mostly determined by supply so this year, we may be more expensive than traditional straw; in other years, there’s a shortage and we’ve been cheaper, so we’re middle of the pack.”
The sustainability question
For Wand, though, the long-term question the industry should think about when looking at bedding options is that of sustainability. Bedding is part of the poultry industry’s overall environmental footprint, a footprint that will need to be considered by any commodities looking to follow the lead of Egg Farmers of Canada, which announced its commitment to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.
The sustainability of wood is multi-faceted, he notes. While wood is a natural, renewable product, the overall footprint of forestry industry itself also must be considered and producers will have to carefully consider long-term cost, availability, and logistics – aspects often beyond their control.
Peat is also a natural product, and it carries benefits for bird health and welfare as well as soil health. The UK, however, has recently announced it will ban sale of peat for home gardening as of 2024 to protect peatlands – a known carbon sink – and the natural environment. What that could mean for agricultural uses long-term is unknown.
“I don’t see any immediate challenges (in Canada) but I think it depends on how far out we will look,” Kuntze says. “The companies harvesting and processing peat here are very heavily regulated by the government.”
From a sustainability perspective, Wand suggests producers take a closer look at growing their own bedding, whether it’s switchgrass, miscanthus or cereal crop based. It gives producers greater control over the quality and supply of their bedding, he notes, as well as making for more complex crop rotations that can benefit the soil.
“One of the big strengths of animal agriculture in Ontario is that largely, people who farm livestock grow crops, so we have a better whole farm nutrient balance. The next logical step could be to grow our own inputs if a farm has the land base,” he says. “I don’t know where the industry is going, but we do need to ask ourselves the long-term hard questions about bedding sustainability.”
Pros and cons at a glance
Pros: low dust, very absorbent, heat-treated; supports good nutrient value of manure; renewable crop that can contribute to soil health when added to a rotation
Cons: higher cost; availability can depend on straw production; not available in all regions
Pros: good absorption, insect suppression, encourages natural bird behaviours; great source of fertilizer and organic matter, cheaper than wood shavings, straw pellets
Cons: lengthy transport to the farm; possible long-term sustainability concerns; air quality could be an issue if not managed
Pros: widely used, very absorbent, keeps dust down for better air quality
Cons: logistics and supply challenges; increased price
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