G van Beek & Zn was founded in 1977 and has grown to become one of the largest producers of calf housing and equipment in the world.
Not only does the company manufacture and construct calf houses, but it also has the contract to rear 50,000 veal calves every year. When constructing a veal house, the company can complete the entire project, bar the plumbing, electrics and the ventilation system.
Peter Smit from G. van Beek & Zn brought the Irish Farmers Journal to the company’s farm which has the capacity to hold 1,200 calves under one roof. The farm is used as a research and demonstration facility for potential buyers of the company’s products.
When calves enter the shed they spend three weeks in the individual pens. These are 1m wide by 1.3m long. The regulations in the Netherlands state pens must be a minimum of 800mm by 1.3m, but as this shed is used as a demonstration farm and for research purposes, larger sizes were chosen.
When calves are able to drink milk without any assistance, they go into group pens of eight calves. They stay there until fit for slaughter.
There are two types of veal production systems. Rosé veal is where calves are slaughtered at eight months. Up to this point calves will have been fed a diet of milk and solid feed. Calves intended for rosé veal will receive milk for the first 10 to 12 weeks of life.
At this point they will go off milk and on to a solid feed diet where they receive a mixture of concentrates and straw.
In white veal production, calves are slaughtered at 26 weeks having been fed a diet consisting mostly of milk, generally fed twice a day.
On the farm, white veal calves will have a target liveweight at slaughter of about 260kg. This translates to a carcase weight of 160kg, according to Peter. The target for rosé veal is to have a liveweight at slaughter of about 300kg, due to the increased age, which equates to a carcase of approximately 190kg.
From sampling veal, I don’t believe it is the taste that is holding it back
According to Peter, veal prices generally fluctuate around €5/kg in the Netherlands, which would give a white veal carcase a value of about €800 while a rosé veal carcase could fetch about €950.
The main health problems that occur in veal sheds, according to Peter, are respiratory issues, which he puts down to the range of farms calves can come from.
Calf house design
The shed is divided into two independent sides.
One side is fitted with conventional timber slats while the other side is fitted with Easyfix rubber mats on top of the timber slats.
This is done to help reduce ammonia emissions from the calves’ urine as the urine will flow quicker off the mats into the tank underneath. It is also done to increase calve comfort and animal welfare.
The difference in the smell of ammonia between the two sides of the house was staggering, with the side of the shed fitted with rubber mats having a greatly reduced smell.
Another key aspect of the design of the calf houses is the dung slider in the shallow tanks under the calves. It is similar to a dung scraper in a passage except it is only used to collect the dung and not the urine. The urine is drained off in a channel due to a 4% fall in the floor of the tank. This helps reduce the smell of ammonia.
According to Peter the entire system, the dung sliders and the rubber mats, have the potential to reduce ammonia emissions by between 30% and 40%.
“An average veal farm would have between 600 to 700 calves at any one time,” said Peter (pictured), “however one of the key issues is the disposal of manure.” As an example Peter outlined that 1,000 calves slaughtered for rosé veal production will produce about 4,000 m3 of manure. This type of a system can be run on 2ha to 3ha but then the big issue is the disposal of the waste. According to Peter it can cost between €17 and €18 per m3 to dispose of the manure.
“This why the slider system would be such an advantage for a farm like this where there is such a small amount of land available as it could reduce the amount of manure that would need to be disposed of,” he said.
The disposal of manure is becoming an issue on a lot of intensive farms in the Netherlands, including pig farms. We also visited a 1,000-sow unit where the farm was spending €140,000 per year on labour while the cost of disposing of the manure was €200,000 a year.
For the calves, the thick fraction of the manure takes up approximately 25% to 35% of the total depending on the system operated, with rosé veal having a higher percentage than calves being fed for white veal. The other 65% to 75% is urine. Being able to separate the two could help to reduce the cost of disposing this waste.
The vast majority of land in the Netherlands is under intensive agriculture so there is just not the land base available to spread all of the manure. For this reason, disposal then becomes an issue.
Veal can be a divisive topic but, with more than 41,000 calves going to the Netherlands from Ireland in 2017 in the form of live exports according to Bord Bia figures. The majority of these are for veal production.
There is no denying the significance the sector has for Irish agriculture.
The need for this outlet will only grow with the continued expansion of the dairy industry leading to more calves on the ground.
Any potential market for these calves needs to be explored.
The question does have to be asked whether the option exists to develop a veal industry in Ireland, with the produce then exported.
It would not be beef farming in a conventional sense and would be more akin to pig or poultry production, with intensive indoor finishing. However, with beef farmers’ incomes struggling, it could provide a profitable enterprise.
Mentality change needed
For an industry to develop it would require a change in mentality for livestock farmers, but it is in consumers where the real change would first have to happen.
Another stumbling block to the development of a veal industry is that there are no large-scale processing facilities for calves in Ireland.
A large amount of our surplus calves from the dairy industry are already finding their way to the continental veal market through the Netherlands. If we could produce and export carcases instead of calves, this could develop into a very profitable industry for farmers, while also providing yet another outlet for dairy-bred calves. However, the image of Irish dairy farming would change if we had our own veal market.
Oftentimes, when a farmer is designing a building they will design it based on the Department of Agriculture specification S.101. The specification has been continually improving and ensures that sheds are built to a very high standard.
It outlines different inlet and outlet ventilation requirements, based on the width of the building. However, it does not take into account the internal layout of the shed.
Buildings should be designed to take advantage of both natural ventilation and the stack effect.
The stack effect is where heat generated by livestock warms the air, which rises up and out of the shed at the apex.
This in turn sucks in fresh air from the inlets along the side of the building. This highlights the importance of having an outlet for air.
If there is no outlet at the apex of the shed, then stale air will be pushed out through the inlets at the side of the shed.
This will mean that fresh air and stale air will be pushing against each other which will result in a very poor flow of air into the shed.
In sheds over 15m wide there is a requirement by the Department of Agriculture to leave a continuous opening of 600mm directly below the eaves. If there is vented sheeting along the side of the building, this decreases to an opening of 450mm.
While a continuous opening is a very good source of inlet ventilation for older stock, for young calves it can lead to draughts.
While more detailed calculations can be completed to evaluate the amount of inlet and outlet area needed for ventilation, using rough figures we need an outlet area of at least 0.04m2 per calf up to 100kg, increasing to 0.1m2 for growing and adult stock. These figures are modified by stocking density of the shed.
The inlet areas for ventilation need to be twice and ideally four times the calculated outlet areas, so 0.2-0.4m2/animal.
For anyone who has built a shed, have you ever considered the actual ventilation requirements based on the stock that will be housed in that shed?
Take two sheds of the same size – one is fitted with cubicles and the other is fully slatted.
Each shed has a passage running down the centre and an animal area either side of this passage of 115m2.
There are very different requirements for these sheds based on the number of livestock they can hold.
Figure 1 shows a cubicle shed where cows would have an area of 5m2/cow, common for cubicle sheds.
This would mean 23 cows could be held either side of the shed, or 46 in total.
If we take a similar-sized slatted shed used for finishing cattle and allocate space of 2.5m2/animal (Department recommended stocking rate for cattle over 275kg) it would mean that we could fit 46 animals on either side of the shed, or 92 animals in total.
This is double the amount of animals, but ventilation requirements are the same for both sheds, according to the Department specifications.
Having an opening of 600mm directly below the eaves (as the shed is more than 15m wide) gives the shed total inlet ventilation of 27.6m2 between the two sides.
If we have 92 cattle in our shed as seen in Figure 2, at an inlet requirement of 0.2m2 (double the 0.1m2 outlet area required), we require 18.4m2 of inlet area. If we increase this to 0.4m2/animal it means we require 36.8m2 of inlet area.
However, for our 46 cows in Figure 1 we require 9.2m2 of inlet ventilation (0.2m2 x 46 cows), or 18.4m2 if we increase this to 0.4m2/animal. The shed design ensures that there is more than enough inlet ventilation.
However, a continuous opening under the roof will not suit all situations, particularly on exposed sites, or calf sheds, for example, where it can lead to draughts. The only other option left to farmers is to use spaced boarding or Yorkshire boarding. As the shed is over 15m wide we are not permitted to use vented sheeting alone.
If using spaced boarding, it must be a minimum depth of 1.5m along the full length of the shed while boards must be 75mm wide with a gap of 25mm.
This equates to a void area of 25%. If a farmer uses spaced boarding along the length of the shed outlined above, at a depth of 1.6m for example, he has a total inlet area of 18.4m2 (1.6m x 23m = 36.8 x 25% = 9.2m2 on either side of the shed).
While this would be sufficient for our 46 cows in Figure 1, it would not provide sufficient inlet ventilation for the 92 cattle in the shed in Figure 2.
While both a continuous opening underneath the eaves of the shed and spaced boarding are excellent options for inlet ventilation, it all depends on what is in the shed. Ventilation should not be viewed as a one-cap-fits-all approach and maybe it is time we go back to the basics with shed design and put the focus on the animal.
Up to this point there has been confusion from farmers as to whether Yorkshire boarding is allowed on grant-aided buildings.
However, the Department has moved to clarify the situation, outlining that specification S.101 is “currently undergoing revision to update requirements, include new items and updates in relation to ventilation.
Space boarding will be considered during the review. However, if an applicant wishes to use it at present, they should submit details of their proposal to the Department.
The Department of Agriculture has grant-aided buildings with double-sided spaced boarding (more commonly known as Yorkshire boarding), while not specifically accounted for in specification S.101.”
The Department also stated that vented sheeting is now required to have a minimum void area of 18%, with the target ratio of 25%.
There is no date as to when this specification will be updated.
Before: the buildings were already in good condition, but work was needed to the roof.
Pat McMahon is a suckler farmer located in north Co Louth, who recently benefited from a grant to conserve the traditional buildings in place on his farm.
To be eligible for the Traditional Farm Buildings Grant Scheme, which Pat availed of, a farmer must also be an applicant of the Green Low-Carbon Agri-Environmental Scheme (GLAS).
“We carried out a lot of research into the history of the buildings as well as the grants that were available,” Pat explained to the crowd of over 100 who attended the open day.
Music and dancing
“These buildings date back to the late 1800s, and form the exterior of an old farm courtyard. In by-gone times, it provided a meeting point for local people where they danced and played music. In more recent times, the buildings were used for storing and bruising grain."
The slates started to fall off some of the roofs on the buildings after storm Ophelia, so work had to be done for safety reasons, if for nothing else.
Before: one of the biggest issues with old buildings is water ingress.
It is important to know that the grant is aimed at conserving traditional buildings and not restoring them.
“Minimum intervention is key,” Pat explained.
Anna Meehan, project manager with the Heritage Council, was also heavily involved with the project. Every year the scheme is over-subscribed, with funding only available for 50 to 60 projects annually, out of over 200 applications.
After: the first job that had to be done was to strip off the slates and the ridge tiles.
“It’s about preserving what is there more than anything else,” Pat said. “I got approval for the project in mid-2018 but getting started wasn’t as straightforward as expected. I had to get a bat-bird survey done and found out that bats used the buildings.”
The bat-bird survey was carried out by Donna Mullen from Bat Conservation Ireland. Following this survey, a derogation licence under the Wildlife Act 1976 was required due to the presence of bats in the building. This meant work could only start on 1 September 2018.
After: 80% of the slates on the existing roofs were salvaged.
The first job that was done was to strip off the slates and ridge tiles on the loft.
Some rafters were rotting and had to be spliced.
The Heritage Council had no objection to the provision of an additional lower line of collar ties to the roof, which helped to tie the buildings while also maintaining head height. All slate batons were replaced on the roofs.
Almost all of the slates on the existing roofs were salvaged. The shortfall of slates was obtained from a local salvage yard. The slates were re-instated using copper nails, while the ridge tiles were re-bedded using lime mortar.
A new floor was installed in the loft. All timbers in the buildings were treated for woodworm while all doors to the buildings were in very poor condition and had to be replaced.
“They were sanded down, primed and glossed to match existing doors. The main issue when people go to do up old buildings is water getting into a building and destroying the walls,” Pat said.
After: Some of the buildings required minor lime pointing.
“I love traditional buildings,” Pat said. “I have perfect soil and sand for sustainable building and repairs here. The loss of skills in rural Ireland is something that you hate to see. This was a great project to be involved in as I always tried to keep the buildings well maintained previously and this was the finishing touch to them.”
Pat's Teagasc adviser James Mimnagh helped to submit the grant application and was followed through by James’s successor Feidhlim Burke.
The GLAS Traditional Farm Buildings Grant Scheme is managed by the National Heritage Council on behalf of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, which is funded by the 2014-2020 Rural Development Programme – the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development in Europe.
Aine Gaffney is a business and technology adviser for Teagasc.
Sean Callan of Lely Center Mullingar outlining key performance indicators for farmers operating a robotic milking system.
Robotic milking can provide farmers with a raft of information that can be used to increase production and improve herd health.
For a farmer in their first year, the main focus will be on getting milk flowing and cows moving, but there are some figures that farmers should be aware of.
Responding to the information provided can be an efficient way to highlight issues and alter management, this was the message from the team at Lely Center Mullingar at a recent adviser training day.
Sean Callan, farm management support specialist with Lely, was speaking on the day.
A lot of information on cow performance can be got from the dashboard.
“When it comes to failures (cows that are not fully milked) the aim should be for less than five/day/robot. If it is over this, then there is a problem somewhere in the system, and more often than not that will be down to management.
“Every failed milking, the cow is coming out half-milked, which can lead to somatic cell count issues and milk quality issues.” Another indicator to be aware of is the number of attempts it takes the robot to attach to the teats. “Connect attempts should be 1.3 or lower/cow. Heifers or cows being trained-in can be higher than this, and dirty tails or udders can also cause issues,” Sean said.
Sean continued, “The box time for cows should be six to seven minutes. If they are under six minutes, then it means cows are coming into the robot too often, which can lead to cows being over milked.
“Slow milkers are also not suitable for robots but this will generally mean farmers only culling one or two cows from their system.”
Rest feed concentrate (%) outlines the percent of feed that a cow has been allocated through the robot that is not getting consumed. The target for this is to be less than 10%.
Cow box time should be between 6-7 minutes per visit.
“It could be a case that the cow is being allocated too much feed, or that they are not spending enough time in the robot,” Sean explained. “This could lead to issues where cows might not be getting enough minerals for example.”
The maximum feed per visit to the robot is 3kg of concentrates.
“If you want to feed 12kg for example, for high yielding cows, then you might need to look at out-of-parlour feeding. Ideally, you want to keep it to a maximum of three milkings/cow/day as any more than this and you will reduce the amount of cows that the robot can carry.”
The robot will also show how long it has been since a cow has been milked. The target here is to go a maximum of 24 hours without being milked. If more than 10% of the herd go over this then the cause needs investigation. Poor grassland management can be one of the main culprits.