Why good housing means less work when it comes to sheep

By Edward Egan, Teagasc drystock advisor

A well-designed sheep shed is labour efficient; provides a healthy environment for the sheep and the shepherd; and makes the best use of space.

The layout of a sheep shed should be planned on paper before it’s built. However, the layout of existing sheep sheds should be reviewed each year before the winter housing period.

Consider the layout of pens, passage ways, meal troughs, water troughs, individual pens, lambing equipment, handling equipment, ventilation and lighting.

Keep in mind the needs of both the sheep and the shepherd. There is always room to improve.

Labour

In 2000, Teagasc surveyed labour use on 30 sheep farms with an average flock size of 352 ewes. The labour input was 36% higher on farms that had poor sheep housing when compared to those with good.

The key message from this survey is the same today as it was 17 years ago – good housing means less work.

List all the jobs you will do in your sheep shed. Jobs like feeding fodder, feeding meal, bedding, moving newborn lambs, mothering-up, watering, cleaning out and veterinary tasks. How will these jobs be done most efficiently?

Feeding time

A well-designed sheep shed should allow you to feed 100 ewes in 10-15 minutes. It should be possible to meal feed ewes without having to get into the pen with them. Having all your ewes under one roof – or at least in the same yard – will reduce the workload.

Floor and feed space

In some sheep sheds, group pens are understocked due to limited meal trough space. If deep pens are to be stocked to their full potential – based on the floor space requirements in the below table – then walk through troughs or feeding on two or more sides of the pen may be needed.

Some sheds are understocked because meal feeding space is halved by having a walled side on the external boundary. This limits meal feeding to the front of the pen.

This leads to understocked pens or narrow pens, small group sizes and more shed space being allocated to passage ways.

Source: Teagasc

Group sizes

Having small group sizes makes work as more groups have to be handled. It also reduces the number of ewes that can be housed in a shed – more space is given over to extra passageways.

Small group sizes also increase the cost of housing as extra dividing gates, exit gates, water troughs and passageways are needed.

Group sizes of up to 60-80 ewes are fine where sheep are evenly matched and have the correct floor, meal and fodder trough space allowances.

Water

To avoid soiling, water troughs in group pens should be 600mm above floor level. A block on the floor may improve access.

Locate water troughs along the outside of the pen, as shown in the next picture, so that they are not in the way when bedding or damaged when cleaning out. In addition, an on/off valve at each water trough will always come in handy.

Water troughs on the inside of the stanchion safely out of the way at UCD’s Lyons farm sheep shed

Bedding

The amount of straw used and the amount of time spent bedding can be reduced by feeding drier fodder, offering an all-meal diet or using slats. However, these options are not available to all.

The amount of time spent bedding can be reduced by having longer pens with fewer divisions between them. Minimise the number of obstacles within the pen. Locate water troughs and – where possible – feed meal and fodder along the outside of the pen.

Source: Department of Agriculture

This allows round bales of straw to be rolled out quickly and easily without being blocked. Another option is to have properly-hinged gates as pen divisions for easy opening and closing.

Minimise obstacles in the pen and hinge dividing gates between pens for easier bedding and cleaning

Cleaning out

Design the sheep shed so that a tractor can enter straight into the group pens from both gable ends for easy cleaning out.

Where practical, reduce the time spent cleaning out by having longer pens; fewer divisions between pens; and avoiding obstacles like racks, ring feeders, walk-through troughs and water troughs.

Posts should slot into the concrete floor, so that they can be lifted out for cleaning. Alternatively, pen divisions should be hinged so they can be swung out of the way without having to be completely removed.

A hinged pen divider at Teagasc Athenry makes opening up pens for feeding, bedding and cleaning out easier

Ventilation

A correctly-designed air inlet in the side walls is key to a properly-ventilated sheep shed. Ideally a sheep shed should have a solid wall to just above sheep height to prevent draughts at sheep level. However this may reduce trough space.

Above this, the sidewalls must let air in. The air inlet should be directly below the eves for the full-length of each side of the sheep house or on the lower side of a lean-to type shed. Yorkshire boarding is a very simple option. It should be installed to a minimum depth of 1.5m below the eves along the full-length of the shed.

Space sheeting in the roof lets light in and stale air out

The gaps between the pressure-treated laths should be 25-50mm. Laths should be 25mm thick with a maximum width of 75mm.

Installed correctly, an open roof ridge, spaced sheeting or raised sheeting make good outlets. An open ridge should run the full length of the roof apex. Avoid a ridge gap over the outlet. Instead, have correctly designed curved/angled up stands on both sides of the ridge outlet to suck stale air out and to repel the rain.

Wider sheds need wider apex openings. When using space sheeting, a 30mm gap is recommended.

In a new, curved-roof shed, spaced sheeting over the entire roof should act as an outlet. The minimum gap is 20mm. Overlap the first two gable end sheets to strengthen the roof.

In existing, curved-roofed sheds – that are being converted to sheep housing – two non-adjacent sheets at the apex of the roof should be raised for at least 33% of the length. Use angle iron spacers to give a clear space on all sides of at least 275mm.

Gates

Gates must be easy to use. Regularly-used gates should be correctly hinged and have a large handle for easy use.

Big handles make it easier to get a grip. Each group pen should have a properly-hinged small gate (0.9-1m wide) that opens freely for taking out newly-lambed ewes. The bottom board of this small gate should open along with the gate to make it easier to encourage a ewe out of the pen.

Properly-hinged, 0.9m wide gate with a bottom board that opens with the gate

Individual pen location and design

Locate individual pens to one side or toward the entrance of the sheep shed; they are handy to use, but never in the way.

Three things will make moving lambed ewes easy for one person. Firstly, individual pens should be under the same roof as the group pens.

Secondly, individual pens should be near group pens. Thirdly, the route from the group pens to the individual pens must be enclosed to prevent the escape of retreating mothers.

When designing individual pens, it’s important to allow access for machinery for cleaning out and for moving sheep to grass.

Allow one individual pen per six ewes where lambing is compact. Individual pens should be 1.5m x 1.5m. In addition, they should be made up using steel hurdles which are easier to keep clean, assemble and open. It’s also important to have all of your preparation work completed before lambing commences.

Lighting

Good natural lighting is important for safety and animal health. Where spaced sheeting is used for the entire roof, clear sheets can be omitted.

If clear sheets are used, a safety grid should be installed under each clear sheet. There should be at least 70 lux level of lighting. It’s important to ensure that light covers are clean and to have spare bulbs ready.

Passageway height

In a straw-bedded house, the passageway floor should be 150-200m higher than the pen floor. This allows the ewes to reach feed on the passageway floor despite bedding building up beneath them. This will also reduce the frequency of cleaning out.

However, the downside of a raised passageway is that the tractor cannot enter the group pens via the passageway due to this drop. Design the house so that the tractor can enter straight into the bedded pens from both gable ends to allow for easy cleaning out.

In addition, the shed’s main passageways should be located and designed so that a tractor can enter from one end and exit through the other end without having to reverse.

Doors

Sliding doors should be fitted with a hinged, single-person door that is at least 2.2m high. This will avoid the need to open the sliding door when entering the sheep shed.

Conclusion

Keep the shed layout simple and keep changes simple. Have a plan for making improvements in stages.

Prioritise what is important and affordable for you. But get the basic skeleton of the shed right from the start. From there, you can make improvements in stages.

It’s important to minimise work and maximise comfort for handlers. Making the best use of available space is a vital aspect to shed design.