Jennifer MacKenzie is an agricultural photo journalist with almost 30 year's experience. Operating from her base in Cumbria, Jennifer undertakes mainly industry-related freelance writing and photography.

Sheep Housing Benefits

New sheep housing has provided all-round benefits in efficiency, welfare and for the environment on a West Cumbrian upland unit.

The building at Rigg House Farm, Branthwaite, near Workington, can house up to 800 ewes for two months pre-lambing, relieving grazing ground and improving management and feeding efficiency for father and son John and Adrian Bateson.

Adrian and John Bateson
Adrian and John Bateson

Its design was carefully considered by the Batesons and they chose a single span shed which is open on three sides with a plastic slatted floor which has enough clearance underneath to allow mucking out with a small tractor and scraper.

A boost to the project was a grant from the Farming Connect Cumbria programme draws to a close this year after injecting almost £7.5 million of capital as well as technical advisory work into the county’s farms since its inception in 2004.

The North West Development Agency scheme has been run under the umbrella of Cumbria Rural Enterprise Agency, based at Redhills, near Penrith, working with as many as 1,500 farmers, around half of whom have been awarded grants.

The Batesons run 1,200 ewes plus hoggs, principally North of England Mules and some Swaledales which are crossed with the Texel. The larger hoggs, around 50 per cent of them, are also lambed.

Half the sheep are wintered at Allonby but they return to Rigg House by mid-January to lamb in April.

“We wanted the new building to house the ewes throughout the winter feeding period. This is a heavy farm and the land is quite wet and it benefits the ground if we can get sheep off the field,” said Adrian Bateson, who farms in partnership with his parents John and Sheila and his grandmother Betty.

“It provides an early spring bite for the ewes which get no concentrate after lambing and helps prevent poaching of the ground. Numbers of sheep outwintered on the high ground which runs up to 700ft have been reduced to 450.

“We have gone into the Entry Level Stewardship Scheme and we have considered the requirements for the Higher Level Scheme although we are keen to continue farming as we are at the moment. We are proud of the wildlife on the farm.”

Rigg House runs to 218 hectares, all of which is grassland and much of it improved by Adrian’s father and grandfather who bought the former tenanted farm. It also carried a herd of 80 predominantly Limousin cross sucklers put to the Charolais bull, with progeny sold finished or store, depending on the market.

Over recent years, with de-coupling cow numbers have been reduced to concentrate on an increased number of sheep.

the building under construction with its slatted floor
the building under construction with its slatted floor

The building was completed in five months just in time for housing the ewes last year but this spring the Batesons are expecting to see the benefits to the ewes in better feeding management and from an ideal environment.

Previously, ewes were trough-fed concentrates in the field and brought inside into the range of other straw-bedded buildings just before lambing.

The new building roof is 150ft by 62ft, the width including a 5ft canopy at either side to shelter the feed barrier which has enabled complete diet feeding. It was built by Klaus Troll engineering of Corney Fell, Millom and erected by Tony Stamper, of Boonwood, Gosforth.

It is divided into 10 fixed pens, which are accessed by gates from a central 4ft passage and the feed barrier which also comprises gates, allowing sheep to easily be removed from individual pens.

The slatted floor construction which has a 7ft clearance underneath to allow mucking out by a scraper tractor accounted for a quarter of the building’s cost

“We decided to opt for a slatted floor as it means that going on recommended guidelines we can house more sheep in a lesser area. This has saved on building costs because we would have had to increase the size of the shed by as much as 50 per cent,” said Adrian.

“The slats will also save on bedding costs and in labour for bedding which alone we think will pay for itself within 10 years. We are also expecting to have fewer foot problems as there is no moist, warm straw to encourage the bugs to grow.”

the building from outside where access allows mucking out of the area under the slats
building from outside where access allows mucking out of the area under the slats

He saw the German-made slats which are made for the pig industry on a friend’s farm at Kirkby Stephen although he and his father had looked all types of slats.

The slats have an 8ft span and the bearers are glass fibre to avoid metalwork corrosion and a minimum life expectancy of 25 years.

They opted for fixed rather than removable slats as they were cheaper and felt there would be potential problems in having to remove them to clear out the manure.

A removable wind break has been hung on the storm side of the building and it can be taken off to allow a freer air flow on still and muggy days and Adrian says it is proving surprisingly effective.

However, while the building is open on three sides, draft is prevented from coming up through the slats by sealing off the underground muck storage area doorway.

“The sheep seem very content in the new building and first thing in the morning they are all lying down,” said Adrian.

All the ewes are scanned soon after housing time which then enables them to be grouped according to how many lambs they are carrying as well as when they are due to lamb.

In-lamb ewes
In-lamb ewes

The housed sheep are initially fed ad-lib silage, eating around 3kg a day. The older housed ewes will be the first to receive the TMR diet based on clamp and round bale silage, crushed barley, distillers dark grains and molasses on a rising scale of feeding up to lambing to 1kg a day of concentrate while reducing silage content of the diet.

The diet is fed once a day in the morning taking about half an hour and pushed up later to allow it to be cleaned up over night.

“Previously, we had to mix the concentrates and bag it up before taking it out to the field and running it into troughs,” said Adrian.

“It saves at least an hour a day and now it’s a one-man operation where before it took two people.

“Feeding the concentrate in the field created a mad rush from the sheep to get to the trough and now the feed is in front of them all day and there is little competition for it.

“It allows us to make our feeding system much more efficient giving the most feed to the ewes that need it and hopefully saving on costs. Before building the new shed the smallest batches of sheep we could have for management purposes were 200.

Immediately at or prior to lambing, the ewes are taken from the new building and housed in the range of other buildings in individual lambing pens to prevent mis-mothering. Later lambing ewes can then be brought into the new building. Geld or ewes carrying single lambs are not housed.

“Our current lambing percentage is 180 for lambs sold but we would like to see every ewe leaving the shed with two lambs and better feed management should help us achieve that. Lambs are sold from July through to January.”

Another benefit of the underground muck storage is that the manure can be applied to the land at optimum times. The Batesons also hope to carry out nutrient planning.

Last year the building was used to contract finish 1,400 bacon pigs, taking them from 40 to 100kg – creating extra income towards the cost of the new building.

“The building has been a great success already and the grant was a huge benefit in a project like this,” said Adrian.

“Without the grant the building probably would not have gone up so quickly and if it hadn’t been built last winter I doubt if it ever would have been following last year’s poor prices for lambs,” he added.

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