2 November 2001

Winter housing snags forcing strategy shifts

By Richard Allison

HIGH straw prices and a shortage of winter housing space are forcing many producers to reassess their livestock housing management this winter.

East Sussex-based producer Tim Burrough had to buy straw this autumn despite growing cereals on his unit.

"The arable enterprise normally supplies sufficient bedding for my loose-housed 200-cow herd, but this seasons straw yields were dismal.

"The problem with loose straw yards is you cannot cut on straw use without sacrificing cow performance. Therefore, extra straw had to be purchased for the first time."

With cubicle housing, sawdust and wood shavings can be used instead of straw, particularly on units located near sawmills, says ADAS housing consultant Tim McKendrick. "However, bedding cows on sawdust can increase mastitis. Reduce the risk by topping up cow beds daily with fresh sawdust."

Washed sand should also be considered for bedding calves, youngstock and cubicle-housed cows, says Cheshire-based dairy consultant John Hughes. "For cubicles, it can be used either as a topping on rubber cubicle mats or a 10cm (4in) layer on its own."

But sand is not suitable on units with above ground slurry storage because it blocks drains and settles in the slurry store. It is also essential that sand is raked and topped up daily in cubicles to prevent the bed becoming hard," warns Mr Hughes.

Using sand instead of straw in cubicles cuts housing costs by £22/cow over a winter, says Mr McKendrick. There are additional cost benefits due to fewer mastitis cases when using sand.

Many producers are also facing a lack of building space this winter for over wintering cattle and sheep, says ADAS David Morris. "Local farms culled out due to foot-and-mouth which are partially restocked may be able to provide surplus building space and forage for additional stock.

"Machinery buildings may also offer temporary housing. Equipment can be easily moved outside and stored under plastic sheeting, allowing the building to be adapted for housing sheep and cattle," adds Mr Morris.

All that is needed to adapt a machinery building are a few large square bales, several pallets and some pig netting, says Mr Hughes. The pig netting is placed on top of the back 1.8m (6ft) of the pen and covered with a 15cm (6in) layer of loose straw to provided a warm sheltered lying area.

Straw must be loose to allow adequate air movement, preventing air becoming stagnant and causing pneumonia, says Mr Hughes. Where wind is likely to be a problem, gale breakers can be erected to prevent snow blowing inside pens.

Where spare buildings are not available, Harper Adams University Colleges building lecturer Jim Loynes suggests sacrificing a free draining area of a field. "Placing animals in unsuitable buildings can lead to more problems than leaving them outside."

This sacrificed area of field can include a straw bale shelter, a straw bedded area and ring feeders, similar to a topless yard system. This can be constructed within a yard surrounded by buildings, but care is needed when siting these areas to avoid polluting nearby watercourses.

Woodchip corrals are also ideal as they provide standing areas with good drainage, says Mr Loynes. This prevents excess poaching and keeps animals dry and clean, ensuring good welfare.

Simply changing which fodder stocks to use first can free up additional building space for stock, says independent building designer Mike Kelly.

"Empty silage pits are useful for providing shelter for cattle or sheep from wind."

Temporary plastic shelters can be cheap to construct at about £26/sq m. "But adding water and power supplies and servicing the shelter can treble costs," warns Mr Kelly. &#42

STATEOFPLAY

&#8226 Several straw alternatives.

&#8226 Consider machinery buildings.

&#8226 Sacrifice field areas.