Murdoch Duncan farms in partnership with his parents a 1800 acre mixed beef and sheep unit in Aberdeenshire. Running a 330 suckler cow herd and 350 ewe flock. Along with growing 700 acres of combinable crops.

We now have all of the cows in for winter housing, with a small group of heifers remaining. Once the cows have been TB tested and scanned next week we will get the final heifers inside.

In any other year the cows would have been inside a few weeks earlier than now, but due to the spiralling cost of straw this year, we have tried to leave them out for as long as possible. However, the on set of wintry weather last week forced us to take them in. The treated straw diet has served them well this season and despite last week’s weather they have come-in, from the great outdoors in great condition.

The other purpose behind delaying housing this year has been down to considering alternative bedding options due to the straw price. We have spent, what short time we have had available, investigating the advantages of using sand as a straw equivalent.

From what we have found out, sand is inorganic and more resistant to bacterial growth and pathogens than organic options such as straw. Due to its nature, it provides a more comfortable bed and can also improve udder health. The size of sand particle is important though, as too coarse and large can cause bruising and abrasions to animals, with finer particles being more beneficial.

We have since taken the decision to give the sand a trial in one of our cattle courts and the outdoor corral. Taking time to prepare the base layer of the corral we opted for a 300mm layer of soft sand both inside and out, with the sand washed to remove the silt content helping aid its longevity.

The thinking behind sand, both indoors as well as out, was to reduce contamination and ease cleaning, as had we bedded straw indoors the cattle would be trailing it outside and mixing it into the sand.

The outdoor area has already been tested fairly rigorously with the volume of rain endured recently but it seems to be standing up well. We will continue with straw bedding in the rest of our courts and see how they compare over the winter.

Probably the most crucial but trying issue in using the sand has been to figure out a practical way to clean it. We have been working with our local blacksmith to come up with a machine that firstly helps with breaking up the sand to maintain drainage but also attempts to remove as much dung as possible. Keeping the sand by cleaning on a regular basis should mean we can reuse it for another season with only a top up layer required next year. A steep learning curve for us, but so far it is looking good and will continue with the updates...

Trying to reduce the time spent bedding has been crucial for us too given our daily workload. We have set-up the remaining cattle courts to allow us to bed using our home-made bedder which we designed and built last year.

It sits on the front of the Manitou and helps to spread the straw in the courts more evenly, whilst retaining the structure of the straw and the absorption abilities. It can carry bales up to 6ft 5" in size and works by unwinding the bales onto two discs which gently throw the straw over an 8m width. We use less bales bedding this way; which in turn leads to less bales to collect, less wrap to be used when tubelining and less time needed to load the bedder.

With the cost of straw continuing to rise we have tried hard to look at ways of conserving our straw. The hope is that if the sand works well and can be reused for the following year with just a top-up layer needed; we could be in a position of becoming self-sufficient and not requiring to buy-in straw in the future.