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Miscanthus – for animal bedding

In the UK, the original use of Miscanthus was for animal bedding, specifically for horses. It is still the most sought after UK animal bedding for equine use although in volume terms it has long been overtaken by use of Miscanthus for boiler fuel. As a result of the ongoing interest in using it for this high value use, production of Miscanthus for horse bedding in New Zealand was an early focus for Miscanthus New Zealand Ltd (MNZ).

Partly as a result of this, although Miscanthus has already been used successfully as boiler fuel in NZ, including by Lincoln University, the largest use in NZ has so far been for animal bedding. MNZ has demonstrated that, dust-free chipped Miscanthus makes very high-quality horse bedding. The advantages of it include the fact that as long as the droppings are removed on a daily basis, the actual Miscanthus bedding material can be left undisturbed for up to twelve weeks without having to be turned or replaced. Additionally, in all that time there is no ammonia smell.

This can result in considerable labour savings. The lack of ammonia puts Miscanthus well ahead of its competitors. Six weeks from being laid with Miscanthus bedding, with minimal topping up, one stable manager observed that there was still no smell from the Miscanthus box, whereas, he said that at stage, the ammonia levels from a box with wood shavings “would make your eyes water”.

But people in the horse business are very conservative and MNZ has found that the stable hands do not consider a reduction in labour demand to be good idea. So they are very reluctant to change the way they manage the horse boxes. As a result, apart from the evaluation trials which were very successful, there has so far been only minor use of Miscanthus for horse bedding in New Zealand.

Poultry bedding is another animal bedding use for which Miscanthus is a preferred product in the USA. There is no reason why it should not be the same in NZ. But although Miscanthus for poultry bedding is much better quality than what is currently being used, the existing NZ suppliers of poultry bedding appear to have a stranglehold on the market. This is preventing change to the better Miscanthus product.

In contrast, a dairy sheep industry leader quickly evaluated Miscanthus and decided that it was worthwhile pursuing. As a result not only has Miscanthus been supplied to this customer now for well over a year, but they are currently one of the major users of harvested Miscanthus. They have also planted over 10 ha of Miscanthus on their own land and plan to plant more to produce their own supply of bedding in the future. There are benefits to the sheep of having drier and more comfortable bedding, but MNZ understands that Miscanthus bedding also promotes animal foot health – as it does with horses, chickens and cows. So Miscanthus provides a further advantage to the dairy sheep industry. One of their farm managers said that the Miscanthus bedding that he receives – chopped but also baled in round bales – is exactly what he needs so he is changing to 100% Miscanthus. They have also now verified the low ammonia levels.

A dairy goat farmer has also evaluated Miscanthus – in his kidding pens. He is enthusiastic about the product. But to supply him with this material right now is difficult because there is not yet any Miscanthus growing in his area. Transport costs make supply from elsewhere too expensive.

MNZ has supplied Miscanthus to a dairy cow composting barn that has been operating for several years using sawdust as the bedding. This use of Miscanthus has proved to be quite successful but it is still being evaluated in terms of quantity, cost, processing method – during harvest – and evaluation of how durable it is in such a composting situation. MNZ is very confident that the results of this evaluation will be positive, particularly with the health benefits that Miscanthus conveys to animals in general.

The other large use of Miscanthus is for calf bedding. Farmers raising calves are in some places finding supply of their usual bedding becoming more difficult and/or more expensive. Those who have evaluated Miscanthus – direct from harvest – while initially being somewhat cautious in their reaction, have universally ended up being extremely positive. Comments have ranged from people expressing initial suspicion of the product, with that suspicion being changed to a wish to get more, through to one calf rearer who commented to MNZ after 3 months continuous use “It is absolutely fantastic stuff!”. All farmers who have tried this product for calf rearing have said that they would like to change to 100% Miscanthus bedding in future if sufficient material was available locally.

MNZ owns several stands of Miscanthus but most are in the North Island. So North Island supply is not yet a problem – although it will become so as demand continues to increase. South Island supply will mostly be dependent on farmers deciding to grow their own Miscanthus, or others growing Miscanthus to supply this market.

The farmer on whose property the Lincoln shelter research trials were established has indicated that he is not only very positive about the beneficial shelter effects of growing Miscanthus on his property but is also keen on the prospect of being able to access further Miscanthus bedding product for his calf operation this year.

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