Livestock bedding offers markets for miscanthus, switchgrass growers

SG field in Grey County before harvest fall 2014 - web

Switchgrass in a Grey County field prior to harvest, Fall 2014 – photo courtesy of OMAFRA

The current wheat straw shortage is sending farmers in search of bedding alternatives for their livestock and poultry.

And they may have found it in biomass crops like miscanthus and switchgrass.

Originally intended for alternative energy production or as ingredients into plant-based plastics and other bioproducts, these crops are increasingly in demand by farmers as livestock bedding for dairy or beef cattle, broiler chickens, sheep or even deep-bedded pigs.

Approximately 2,500 acres of biomass crops are currently being grown in Ontario, mostly by members of the Ontario Biomass Producers’ Co-operative (OBPC), which was formed several years ago to help develop biomass crop production and markets in the province.

“There are dozens of livestock farmers using miscanthus and switchgrass and most of the co-op members are sold out,” says Jake DeBruyn, an agricultural engineer with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA). “Bedding could be a great short term opportunity for biomass producers.”

How well biomass can work as bedding is currently being evaluated on several pilot sites through a project led by the co-op using funding support from Growing Forward 2.

Miscanthus bedding up close - web

A handful of miscanthus bedding – photo courtesy of OMAFRA

Broiler chickens, for example, are usually bedded on wheat straw or wood shavings to keep the birds comfortable in the barn. Good bedding will help manage moisture in the barn and ensure bird foot, leg, and breast health.

Several broiler farms in southern Ontario have been testing how well miscanthus performs compared to wheat straw or wood shavings and the results have been promising.

“Miscanthus had good performance. In the two barns where we evaluated miscanthus bedding, our poultry specialist found excellent breast and foot pad health,” says DeBruyn.

One problem plaguing many poultry farmers is the darkling beetle, a feed-consuming bug that destroys barn insulation between cycles of birds. Initial laboratory observations suggest that darkling beetles do not like miscanthus, which could be a significant development for farmers if further research now underway supports that.

Marc de Jong raises broilers in the Jarvis area and has been experimenting with miscanthus. Although he’s only completed one trial, the miscanthus has been performing well so far: he’s had to cull fewer birds because of leg issues and has also had fewer birds deemed unfit for processing when they go to market.

Poultry on miscanthus bedding - web

Poultry on miscanthus bedding – photo courtesy of OMAFRA

Dairy farmers are experimenting with a different biomass crop, switchgrass, as both bedding and a feed source. According to OMAFRA dairy specialist Marlene Paibomesai, dairy cows typically spend between 16 and 18 hours a day lying down and resting and there’s a direct link between resting time and volume of milk produced, so dry and comfortable bedding is important.

Currently, most dairy farmers use sawdust, wood chips, straw, peat, or sand as bedding options – in many cases, being able to grow only a few acres of perennial switchgrass could take care of a farm’s bedding needs every year and assure them of a stable, consistent supply.

Rudy Zubler, a dairy farmer from the Ridgetown area, is constantly searching for a reliable supply of bedding suitable for his certified organic herd and has been experimenting with switchgrass as a possible solution.

“Cow comfort is king in organic, so we use a lot of bedding. I’ve been using switchgrass and have been very impressed,” he said in a presentation at Ag Biomass Day held in Guelph recently.

“Switchgrass keeps the cows cleaner and on firm footing and works with our organic status. Overall, I liked the end results,” he added. “My goal now is to grow my own switchgrass so I can supply myself with at least 50 per cent of the bedding needs for my farm.”

Urs and Jake in the tall switchgrass - web

Urs Eggimann (left) of the Ontario Biomass Producers’ Co-operative and Jake DeBruyn, OMAFRA, in a field of switch grass – photo courtesy of OMAFRA.

Other current and future biomass applications include mushroom substrate, mulch and cattle feed.

More information on biomass in Ontario is available from the Ontario Biomass Producers’ Cooperative at www.ontariobiomass.com.

Growing Forward 2 (GF2) is a provincial-federal-territorial initiative. The Agricultural Adaptation Council assists in the delivery of GF2 in Ontario.