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Cattle Bedding and Food Safety

Updated July 08, 2020
Heidi Carroll

Heidi Carroll

SDSU Extension Livestock Stewardship Field Specialist & Beef Quality Assurance Coordinator

Written collaboratively by Heidi Carroll and Keith Underwood.

When most people think of farm animals, a picture of Old MacDonald’s Farm likely comes to mind with fluffy, bright yellow piles of straw in and around a barn. Cattlemen may look at bedding as just another chore along with feeding, watering, and doing health checks that promotes the well-being of the animals to grow and produce high quality food. However, some people may be wondering, does this on-farm chore have any influence on the safety of the meat products produced by cattlemen?

What materials are used for bedding cattle?

Bedding can consist of different materials that are suited for the specific facility design (open lot, confined barn), environment and climate (hot, cold, wet weather), and production level of the animals (pregnant cows/newborns, feeder cattle). Some typical bedding materials include:

  • Straw (wheat, oat, other small grains)
  • Corn stocks or stover
  • Hay (usually low quality that is less palatable, avoid mold)
  • Saw dust or wood chips/shavings
  • Soybean residue or stubble
  • Sand or dried compost
  • Newspaper (usually shredded)

In South Dakota, straw, corn stocks, and hay are the most widely used bedding materials by beef producers. Wood products may be used more in areas that have easy access to the by-products of the forestry industries or with show stock since the cattle are less likely to eat it. Sand or dried compost and newspaper is used less often by beef producers. Availability and the manure hauling options of the operation will influence which type of material a cattleman may choose for bedding. A cattleman must also consider the comfort, bacteria/fungi growth potential, moisture holding capacity, and the cost of the bedding.

Why do cattlemen bed livestock?

Bedding provides a soft area for animals to lay that encourages rest and helps to maintain overall health and production. It also cushions the animal from the ground or floor of a barn to protect its joints. During cold weather, bedding provides insulation to the cold snow and ice and thus helps to keep cattle’s maintenance energy requirements lower. Dry bedding is important to protect newborn calves from harsh weather conditions that rob them of necessary energy to develop and grow up healthy. Most importantly, bedding helps to absorb urine, feces, and mud to keep it off of the animal’s coat and provide a healthy environment for the animals to live. Keeping urine, feces, and mud off of the animal’s coat does two important things for the cattle 1) maintains the insulation capacity of the coat to keep the animal warm in cool, wet weather and 2) maintains good hygiene that reduces the amount of bacteria and pathogens on the animal’s hide.

Does providing bedding have benefits to the safety of the meat purchased by consumers?

Bedding allows the animal to stay cleaner and maintain less manure, urine, and mud on the animal’s hide. This is important because pathogenic bacteria exist in the feces, manure and mud that could be transferred to the meat products during harvest. The transfer of pathogenic bacteria may occur when the hide is being opened or during the hide removal process. With increased mud and manure on the animals coat there is a greater opportunity to transfer microorganisms and pathogenic bacteria to the carcass. Therefore, any on-farm practice that will help the animal stay cleaner helps ensure safe meat products.

What happens at the packing plant to ensure meat safety?

There is a tremendous amount of innovation and effort at packing plants to ensure that meat products are safe and remain of high quality. In order to ensure product safety, beef packers employ numerous strategies to reduce or eliminate harmful bacteria from beef products. First and foremost, each carcass is inspected to ensure wholesome and safety for consumers by a USDA or State Inspector. Each packer also has a specific food safety plan to ensure that they are reducing or eliminating safety concerns associated with their process. These plans are known as HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) Plans and are designed as preventive measures to ensure safety of their products and reduce contaminants to the meat. Each plant or facility may implement different methods to reduce harmful bacteria, such as using hot water washes, organic acid washes, or steam pasteurization. All of these methods are designed specifically to reduce or prevent harmful bacteria on carcasses and beef products.

First, cattlemen provide care for the cattle on the farm or ranch that promotes optimal health and a clean hide. Then the packing plant takes specific steps to further reduce the potential pathogens on the meat. All of these careful steps coupled with proper food handling and cooking techniques greatly reduce the risk of foodborne illness to your family.

Further Reading

To learn more about the specific benefits of bedding cattle, please refer to:

  • Bedding Feedlot Cattle in the Winter
  • Preparing a Stress Free-Clean Environment for your Calves
  • Spring Storms and Cold Stress
  • NDSU Extension. Effects of Bedding Feedlot Cattle During the Winter on Performance, Carcass Quality, and Nutrients in Manure 
  • USDA-ARS Study Looks at Bedded Pack Management in Deep-Bedded Monoslope Facilities
  • SDSU. Effect of Straw and Newspaper Bedding on Cold Season Feedlot Performance in Two Housing Systems