Buildings focus: Inside a €120,000 cubicle and calving shed in Co. Westmeath

Farming just outside Killucan, Co. Westmeath, Mattie and Hugh Gaffney – a father-and-son team – run a herd of 110 predominately British Friesian cows under a spring calving system. Eddie, Hugh’s brother, also lends a helping hand whenever he gets the opportunity.

The Gaffneys also keep approximately 40 bull and heifer calves every year, which are then sold on as stores.

The calving period is well and truly under way and approximately 73% of the herd has calved to date. The grazing platform consists of 100ac of owned land and 7ac of leased ground.

Hugh outlined that the size of the herd has gradually increased over the past five years and all replacements are bred on the farm.

“Over the last couple of years, we were carrying approximately 25-30 replacements to allow for culling and to push the herd size on a small bit,” he explained.

However, as the herd size increased, winter accommodation began to become an issue. He said: “I only had 60 cubicles in the yard, so my decision to build was based on that.

“I needed a cubicle house. Before, I had cows in a few different sheds and it wasn’t really working. It was manageable in a mild winter; but it would have been a disaster this year if we didn’t have the new shed,” Hugh said.

The Westmeath-based farmer also stated that slurry storage and the availability of the Targeted Agricultural Modernisation Scheme (TAMS II) grant were other factors that influenced his decision to build.

Now, tucked away neatly in the corner of the yard sits an impressive calving and cubicle shed.

Entering and exiting

The five-bay shed stands at 27m wide and 4.4m high to the eve gutters. The height from the floor to the apex equals 7.5m.

Split, sliding doors are located at either end of the shed. Two roller doors are placed at either end of the calving section. These provide access for a tractor to clean out the pens.

Hugh said: “We left the main doors high enough to facilitate tractors and silage trailers, as they will have to pass through to access the pit. There are also two pedestrian doors located at either end.

“The roller doors nearly work out cheaper when you allow for tracking and galvanise. They are safe and secure. They don’t get caught in the wind, so it’s a good job.

“There’s a gate on the inside as well to stop cattle pushing up against them. It also leaves the shed very cosy. I’m happy enough with them to be honest,” he explained.

There are also sliding doors located at the back of each individual calf pen. The adjoining paddock will be fenced into the doors so the calves can spend some time outside.

Calving pens and cubicles

Located along the left hand side of the shed are three calf pens and two calving pens. They are 4.8m wide and 4.7m long.

There is also a 200mm fall on the floor to a 600mm channel (shore). This shore is topped with pig and calf slats, which are strong enough to withstand the weight of a tractor. Any waste produced is piped to the main slurry tank, which is located at the other end of the unit.

Water drinkers can be accessed from each pen and pedestrian gates are located in every pen. Cows can be walked across the feed passage as they come close to calving.

“I split the cubicle side of the shed in two. I have cows close to calving on one side and I just walk them over to the pens when they’re on the point of calving. The gate opens out into the feed passage and it works very well,” Hugh explained.

A globe calving camera is also located in the calving area. He said: “The camera is a great job. I can get it on my phone as well and I can watch them no matter where I am.

“When we designed the shed, we wanted to be able to move every animal in the place with ease. One gate will match up to the other; it was designed to be a one-man show.”

The build provides Hugh with 60 new cubicles. These are lined with rubber mats and a brisket board is present to help keep the mats clean. Lime is spread on the mats once a day when the cows are dry and twice a day when they are in milk.

Ventilation, lighting and grafting on to an existing shed

There is plenty of light in the unit. Four skylights/bay – equipped with safety bars – provide natural light, while 16 LED lights can be used at night time.

Vent sheeting was fitted along the length of the structure to improve ventilation.

“I installed vent sheeting on the side and 0.6mm solid sheets on the roof. The shed can be as airy as you want or as cosy as you want. I have the option to open up the roller doors as well, so I’m well set up on that front.”

The shed was built onto an existing beef house. A clever design was needed to allow it to work and to ensure that it met grant specifications.

The last two bays of the existing shed were converted from beef pens to cubicles. This allowed for an additional 28 cubicles.

An 88ft long, 14.6ft wide and 8ft deep slurry tank was installed on the cubicle side of the unit. Agitation points are located externally at either end of the tank. There is also an automatic scraper located in this side of the house.

The cost and the future

The shed was fabricated and erected by Smyth Engineering. Additional contractors included Kevin Molloy (shuttering) and RKC (ground work and concrete).

The ground work commenced in May 2017 and the entire project was finished by the end of September. The calf and cubicle house was constructed under TAMS II and Hugh received the 60% young farmers allowance.

The total cost of the unit was approximately €120,000.

Hugh outlined where he stood in terms of expansion and increasing his herd size, adding: “I’m happy enough where I am for the time being. If I can push the numbers on the existing grazing block – by focusing on grassland management – I’d be more than happy.

“Labour is the next issue. If I’m going to drive on numbers, I would want to be hitting another 70-80 more cows to justify another man.

The shed during construction

“Getting enough land to do that would be an issue and then I would have to upgrade my facilities. There is a lot to add to the equation.

I want to be as efficient as I can be for a one-man operation. I might have to get some labour in the spring time but that’s manageable.

Touching on milk price, he said: “If it can stay anywhere north of 30c/L we’re away with it. We have a young enough herd at the minute and our solids should only get better. Milk at 40c/L is not sustainable and its not going to happen,” he concluded.