Bedding down some 400 Aberdeen Angus cattle by hand three times a week keeps you extremely fit but doesn’t have much else to recommend it, says Wanda Hobbs, part of the family partnership that runs the famous Wedderlie herd at Gordon, Berwickshire.

It is also very time consuming, and the owners of the 190-cow Wedderlie herd – which celebrated its centenary last year, and is the third oldest herd in the breed – decided it was a job that needed streamlining.

Their decision to mechanise the task led to the purchase of a Spread-a-Bale, which has certainly paid its way in making the task faster and less physically onerous, and is also saving straw.

They have nearly 400 cattle housed each winter in a series of eight different sheds around the farmstead and a corral area nearby – a mixture of cows, calves and progeny being finished for breeding or beef.

Bedding down that many cattle was becoming time consuming, and a problem on a farm which Wanda manages in partnership with her parents Marion and John Tilson, with one stockman, a shepherd and a Harper Adams placement student.

They also run a flock of 1,760 ewes, so everyone is already busy enough. Moving to mechanical bedding down offered a chance to reduce workloads and release valuable staff time for other jobs.

Their farm is some 2,500 acres – a mixture of grass leys and hill grazing which is used by the sheep, with a small acreage of kale being grown to feed and finish the lambs.

Spreading bedding straw was one of the hardest chores on the farm: “It kept us all very fit – but it took a very long time. It could take two people four or five hours each time”, says Wanda.

They normally spread straw twice a week, but might do the job three times a week in the pens containing cows and their new-born calves to ensure they always have a fresh clean bed.

As the herd calves in two groups – one in the autumn and another in the spring – that could mean most of three days’ work being taken up with this one task.

They tested a range of machines for the job before settling on the Spread-a-Bale, which strips whole straw out of the bale and spreads it in an even layer to form a long lasting, hygienic bed.

Some of the other machines they tested failed to impress, says Wanda: “One of them kept blocking up and another blew the straw right out of the shed into the trees outside. We also found we could not keep straw from falling in the drinking troughs, which we want to keep clean”.

The Spread-a-Bale impressed because they can mount and demount it from the Merlo loader quickly and drive into the pen to spread straw while the cattle are still in it:

“It takes two people a couple of hours and is nothing like as tiring as manual spreading. One person drives the loader. The other opens and shuts the gates, and can take the opportunity to inspect the animals at the same time”.

Mechanical spreading is also reducing their straw usage, she says. They have moved from round bales to Mini Hesstons, and any saving is valuable because these all have to be brought in from neighbouring farms:

“Straw is used more efficiently because the bed is better and lasts longer. When we muck out the sheds we notice the manure is more even and easier to spread on land being prepared for re-seeding”.

The Spread-a-Bale also has a role in feeding: “The main diet during housing is silage and straw with minerals and some concentrates. But we use the machine to drop extra straw in the ring feeders in each pen so the cattle can eat clean straw whenever they want”.

David Edgar, from Paxtons – Spread-a-Bale’s distributor for the region – says the machine’s ease of operation is one of its key assets:

“For many customers the key is the fact that it can be operated by one person with a forklift truck, and can easily be de-mounted after use, so it does not tie up extra staff or machines.

“Farmers using the machine to bed down bull beef units identify an extra benefit because they can spread straw from outside the pen, which avoids the risk to staff of having to enter the pen with animals”.