Kintyre monitor farmer Duncan Macalister has saved over £1,100 per month in cattle bedding costs, plus many hours of time, by switching from straw to sawdust on his 1,730 acre (700 ha) Glenbarr Farms, a few miles north of Campbeltown on the west coast of the Kintyre Peninsula.
At the recent monitor farm meeting, Mr Macalister told the community group that a Kintyre monitor farm community group visit in July 2012 to a previous monitor farmer, Robert Parker of Drumdow near Stranraer, had resulted in him making the switch which has generated financial, management and time saving pluses.
The cattle enterprise on Glenbarr Farms, one of the network of Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) monitor farms throughout Scotland, is based on a breeding herd of 140 predominantly spring calving Aberdeen-Angus cows. Almost all progeny, other than retained heifers, are finished.
While the large majority of the cows are out-wintered on coastal barley stubble, over 200 head of cattle, a combination of weaned calves, finishing animals, replacement heifers and breeding bulls are housed.
Just over 100 acres of barley are grown but in previous years additional straw had been purchased.
The main aim of the summer 2012 visit to Robert Parker’s had been to view his herd of Black Baldies, a rotational cross of Hereford and Aberdeen-Angus.
“While we were there, we tried to see as much as we could,” explained Mr Macalister. “We had a good look round Robert’s cattle handling and housing and went into a shed which had been bedded with sawdust. We asked why sawdust, not straw?”
Mr Parker had told the Kintyre group that the sawdust was cheaper than straw, was labour saving, it kept the cattle cleaner and, after composting for a year, did not need to be ploughed in - instead it was absorbed into the ground.
“While I produce some barley straw of my own, it’s great roughage to feed to the cattle and the cost of getting additional barley straw delivered to Kintyre is around £120 per ton,” commented Mr Macalister. “Sawdust at around half the price per ton certainly seemed worth a try.”
Using “green” sawdust from totally natural timber which has not been kiln dried or treated with any preservatives, Mr Macalister put an initial layer of at least one foot deep into the cattle buildings.
“Green sawdust is admittedly damper than if the timber had been treated but this dampness makes it less dusty, which is better for the cattle, as well as making it easier for people to work with,” explained Mr Macalister.
“Obviously the financial savings are significant but I’m also really impressed with the amount of time the sawdust has saved, at least three hours a week, which means a lot, especially when daylight hours are short.
“Also no fancy, expensive machinery is needed. Once the cattle were on the sawdust, there was very little labour input, other than topping the sawdust up once a week, which was as simple as just emptying four tractor bucketfuls into each pen. Whereas with straw, we needed to bed the cattle three times a week, which not only took a lot of time, but can also be sometimes risky for the stockman.
“Good barley straw absorbs about two litres per kilo, with sawdust’s absorbency varying from 1.5 to 2.5 per kilo. We used a bit more sawdust than straw, 25 ton of sawdust and 22.5 ton of straw per month, but the cost of the sawdust worked out at around £62 per ton, as opposed to £120 for straw.
“Obviously one of the main considerations was how clean the cattle were on the sawdust. Not one finished animal needed to be pre-slaughter belly clipped before sending to Scotbeef at Stirling, which was a major plus!”
Mr Macalister balanced his enthusiasm for the sawdust bedding by adding that there are some negatives: “It must be stored where it can be kept dry, and this storage has to be accessible to the articulated delivery lorry.
“Also, as Robert Parker had told us, it needs to be composted for a year to avoid nitrogen ‘lock up’. In addition, its fertiliser value is poorer than straw.”
The community group were concerned that the used sawdust would possibly be more acidic than straw-based manure and recommended considering adding lime to it before spreading on land.
The Kintyre monitor farm has concluded its three year term. While there will be no further official meetings, Mr Macalister will be hosting a monitor farm open day in July.
For more information, please contact the facilitator:
Linda McLean, Telephone: 01586 820226
For general information on Monitor Farms, plus detailed reports of meetings, please visit: www.qmscotland.co.uk/monitor-farms