Who needs a roof on a cattle shed?

A cattle building without a roof sounds odd, but for one Norfolk finishing unit it makes a lot of sense.

Not only does it avoid pasture damage from outwintering, but it has also helped cut building costs and pneumonia levels.

As long as stock have a dry bed they are happy, says Philip Dale, farm manager for Paul Rackham’s 480ha (1200-acre) unit near Thetford, which finishes 6000 head a year.

More importantly, cattle housed in these open-roofed buildings are 70% healthier than those housed in conventional sheds.

“We no longer have any major outbreaks of pneumonia,” he adds.

Although he can’t give exact construction costs, Mr Dale says savings were made in roofing as well as annual maintenance of gutters and downpipes, plus a useful reduction in time spent treating stock for disease.

But this needs to be weighed against the economics of straw use.

With annual rainfall of just 610mm (24in), cattle are bedded up every 2-3 days in dry weather pens, but daily in wet weather.

“We use 2t a day as we have found that as long as cattle have a dry bed, rain or snow doesn’t bother them,” he adds.

Four outdoor yards are home to about 1000 cattle for the 100 days they are finished on the unit, arriving at 18-22 months of age from a mix of sources, including the unit’s own pedigree 100-cow Red Poll suckler herd.

One of the biggest problems of buying in cattle from different sources then housing them in mixed air space is pneumonia, says Mr Dale.

This led to the first yard being erected four years ago to try to combat this common problem.

“We’ve had problems with IBR and RSV in the past and might only lose one animal, but others would still go off their feed and growth rates were held back for two weeks,” he says.

While the farm’s conventional roofed cattle housing has been modified to improve air circulation with slits cut into roof sheets and ventilation tunnels, starting from scratch meant new yards could be built with good ventilation the key priority.

Mr Rackham designed the yards himself to have 1.8m (6ft) high block walls clad in plastic-coated steel sheets.

The eaves curl over to offer a bit of shelter.

Each yard has a central feed passage and four pens, each pen holding about 60 cattle, the number arriving in a lorry load.

All yards have a concrete base for ease of mucking out and a Temple Grandin style handling setup at one end.

Since the first yard proved so successful, a further three have been built.

The only modification has been the addition of two sprinklers in each pen, says Mr Dale.

“In summer, they are a bit of a sun trap.

We found some cattle were getting heat stress.

We didn’t lose any animals, but when they are heat stressed they are more likely to pick something up.

Spraying them with water put them back to normal in half an hour.

The sprinklers are on auto timers to keep cattle cool and encourage them to eat.”