New farm buildings generally generate a good deal of interest with farmers keen to get an insight into aspects such as the layout, ease of managing stock, ventilation and lighting and the cost of the investment among other things.

One limitation of featuring brand new facilities is that there has often not been sufficient time to put them to the test and see what aspects, if any, that the operator would change or the features that are working well.

This cannot be said of a recent visit to the farm of Patrick Nuttall, Newtownmountkennedy, Co Wicklow.

The focus of the visit doubled up as an opportunity to see how the farm’s sheep shed has lasted the test of time since it was built over 35 years ago and also to view new feed barriers manufactured by O’Donovan Engineering and installed in 2021.

Significant activity

The seven-bay double-sided shed was erected in 1986 and instantly made an impression with the Nuttalls due primarily to the labour saving, with this impression enhanced in 2006 when a slatted floor replaced straw bedding.

Lighting in the shed is excellent and is provided by a mixture of roof skylights, a big opening at the eaves and electrical lighting in each pen.

The farm is located at a high altitude ranging from 800ft to 1,100ft above sea level and is prone to harsh easterly winds in spring, meaning the grass growing season in a normal year is late to kick off with grass reserves also diminishing quickly in the back end.

As such, ewes are housed annually for a significant period of time from early December through to late March/early April.

Patrick says: “Once the grass reserves have been depleted ewes are brought indoors at the first opportunity.

“I see no benefit in keeping ewes outdoors and grazing fields to the clay. Growth is late enough to kick on in spring without knocking it back further.

“I also find that if ewes are housed in good form it will be easier to keep condition on them indoors thereafter.”

Slatted floor

The reduction in straw bedding also brought about a sharp reduction in the amount of labour required in bedding animals.

There is still a good deal of straw bedding in place on the farm for the suckler-to-beef herd and Patrick is quick to praise the benefits of a straw blower in cutting labour, along with reducing straw usage.

The slatted tank is about 18ft wide and 4ft deep with the width from the stanchions at the front of the pen to the back wall (picture one) measuring 20ft.

Photo 1: The slatted sheep shed has capacity to hold in the region of 450 ewes.

The site on which the shed is built has a fall of about 2ft from back to front. At the lower side of the shed, there is a ramp up to the central passageway while on either side there is a covered ramp leading in to the tank to facilitate cleaning.

This is carried out every two years and Patrick says it takes close to a week to lift out the slats, penning, etc, remove the solid material and land spread and make up the shed again.

“It’s seems like a pretty big job but it’s not. A teleporter lifts out the slats and the dung is spread with a rear discharge spreader.

“The shed is dismantled and put back together usually over the space of a week but this would be coming and going from it when we have time along with carrying out the normal daily jobs.

“If it was a straw-bedded shed we would be cleaning it numerous times over the season so once every two years isn’t bad”.

Mesh slats

The mesh slats have stood the test of time and are still in great condition with only odd small sections along the feeding barrier needing repair.

Three aspects are attributed to prolonging the life of the mesh slats. As can be seen in picture two, the mesh has more timber supports than usual which Patrick says reduces the pressure and strain on the mesh.

Photo 2: The mesh slats have extra support timbers which Patrick feels has prolonged their integrity.

Once the shed is empty post lambing it is quickly cleaned and power-washed, reducing the risk of rust establishing. The mesh is also a strong grade and Patrick has focused on sourcing a similar grade when carrying out any repairs.

Pens vary in their cleanliness and one ewe with a tendency to pull silage into the pen can make all the difference.

The mesh is given a quick wash with a power hose once a month and this helps with ewe cleanliness. The focus on using high-quality materials has delivered in other ways for the shed.

The walk-through troughs seen in picture three are also present since the shed was built as are the troughs for feeding concentrates.

The troughs are heavy-duty steel eave runs which were fitted with end pieces. A simple plywood gate is present at the end of each walk through section and fitted with a bungee cord for automatic closing.

Feeding space

Walk-through troughs in such a shed would normally be used for increasing the feeding space for feeding forage but this has never been the case on the farm with forage offered only along the front feeding barrier.

“I have always offered forage along the front and never had any issues.

Picture 3: The walk-through section is used for feeding concentrates.

“Ewes are fed in the morning and silage is pushed in during the day and topped up again if needed in the evening, so there are plenty of opportunities for all ewes to eat.

“Some people have said that walk-through troughs are a luxury for just feeding meals and that I am losing a fair bit of pen space but I would happily forego this space any day than revert to entering pens to feed concentrates.”

Feeding of the flock has also been much more efficient since the first straw blower was purchased in 2002 with this also used for feeding silage.

The width of the feeding passage is one area Patrick would change if he was building the shed again.

“The feeding passage is about 9ft 6in wide which is fine if forking silage to sheep but too tight for using the straw blower to feed sheep.

Picture 4: The feed barriers are secured to the ground at three points and also fastened to the walk-through troughs.

“We moved the feed barrier back into the pen by about 2ft (see picture one) and this also brought benefits in keeping ewes cleaner as previous to this they were standing on a solid area at the front of the pen”.

New barriers

Patrick recently installed the new barriers seen in picture four. The barriers were manufactured bespoke to fit the 12ft 6in openings and include a swinging gate which is the full height of the barrier.

Explaining the reasoning for selecting these barriers, Patrick says: “I looked at a number of different types of feeding barriers but most had the same feature of the gate not opening the full height of the barrier and requiring ewes to step out over a significant height or were manufactured lighter than I would like.

“I wanted to make sure ewes moved in and out of the pens easily for any tasks (footbathing, administering health treatments, washing mesh, etc) and post-lambing”.

The barriers are manufactured using heavy-gauge 5mm box iron with the upright sections made of 2in square box iron to provide greater stability.

Picture 5: The gate section opens in its entirety and is opened and closed with a spring-loaded latch.

A steel plate is fixed to the bottom of each upright to allow the pens to be secured in place.

The middle upright, which also supports the gate, is secured to the concrete with four bolts, while the two on either end are secured with two bolts and also fastened to the walk-through troughs.

Photo 6: O'Donovan Engineering has seen an increase in demand for barriers which can open on both sides.

As can be seen in picture five, the feeding rail can be adjusted to four different heights with this another feature which appealed to Patrick as it can be quickly tailored to suit different sized ewes or ewe lambs and store lambs for finishing.

The gates were also fitted with a spring-loaded opening handle compared to the standard gate closing mechanism.

The bespoke heavier-duty gates cost €550 plus VAT and Patrick says: “I can already see that the barriers will be a good fit for the shed and encourage the smooth flow of sheep in and out of pens. I am also confident that they will stand the test of time like the ones they replaced.”

The height of the feeding rail can be adjusted with four different settings.

Design features

Jason Fitzgerald from O’Donovan Engineering explains that the barriers are based on the company’s heavy-duty calf barriers.

Jason Fitzgerald, O'Donovan Engineering.

“The design of each bay consists of a fixed adjustable barrier which is base-plated to the concrete floor and attached to the walk-through on one side and a full height adjustable access feeding gate on the other which maximises feed space.

Jason says that demand for similar gates, as shown in picture six, has increased over the last year.

“Normally, both the larger feed gate and the full height access gate would be hinged from the shed stanchions or heavy-duty 5mm pillars depending on the layout of the shed and sheep flow requirements.

“Both feed gates have two adjustable features, the headrail is adjustable and the whole body of the gate can be risen as the height of the bedding rises without moving the hangers.

“Stockboard is used at the bottom of the barrier with a rubber strip (5 X 120mm) fitted to the bottom of the barrier. This material is hard-wearing and prevents nuts and silage from going under the feed barrier”.

Patrick’s extra top tips

Patrick says there are a number of other aspects which work well in the shed and should feature strongly when designing sheds.

  • Ventilation: Air flow and ventilation in the shed is excellent with a 1.2m opening at the eaves and shelter provided via netlon mesh. There is also a wide roof canopy and it is clear to see that ventilation is not an issue with no signs of any cobwebs or dust on the underside of roof sheeting. This is a factor which he believes has also prolonged the life of roof sheeting and timbers which remain in excellent condition.
  • Lighting: there is a skylight and an electrical light in each pen, both of which have been replaced in recent years. Patrick says that a well-lit shed provides a more natural environment for sheep and the operator.
  • Pen numbers: the pen numbers spray painted on the shed are a simple addition to any shed and are central to easy communication where there is more than one person working on the farm. Over 150 students have passed through the yard and there is a map in the yard office showing all sheds which are also named and a white board where directions can be easily left.