In the last Buildings Focus for 2021, Agriland travelled to Tipperary to speak to dairy farmer, Joe O’Neill about his new calf shed built in 2020.

Joe operates a spring-calving system which sees him milk 116 British Friesian cross Holstein cows through a 16-unit parlour – that was extended from eight units in 2016.

The Tipperary-native took over the running from his father, who passed away in 2014 and since then, has increased the size of the herd from 80 cows up to where it is today.

Joe, who farms in partnership with his mother Marian, has gradually been making improvements on the farm since 2014. The last bit of the jigsaw was to build a new calf shed – having slogged through, every spring, rearing calves in two separate, old and inefficient sheds, that were very laborious and time-consuming to rear calves in.

Dried off cows enjoying some time off

Speaking to Agriland inside his new calf shed during the week, Joe said: “Up until 2014, we would have been milking 80 cows here through an 8-unit parlour and would have been rearing calves in two sheds, which would have been small, with a low roofs which made them difficult to clean out.

“It was very labour intensive but we managed to work it, but as cow numbers started to increase in the last few years, it was becoming a harder task every spring.

“And, as well being labour intensive, the time it was taking to feed and bed the calves, as well cleaning it out was too much and something had to change.

“I’m a one-man show here as such, as my mother works full-time off-farm, so trying to calve cows on one end of the farm, bring the calves up to the sheds in a calf trailer we made for the quad, bring over and milk the cows in the parlour and feed the calves was just getting too much.

“So last year, I made the decision to build a new calf shed that would cut down on the workload and allow me run an efficient one-person system here at springtime.

“The spring gone by was its first year in use and I can tell you, the difference between the new shed and what I was working with before, was like night and day.”

Joe O’Neill

Taking ideas from other farms

Before doing anything, Joe took it upon himself to visit as many new modern calf sheds he could, to go in search of some ideas he could bring home and implement in his own calf shed.

He added: “I had a fair idea of what I wanted but I made sure to go to other farms and see could I take any ideas from them and bring them back with me and implement in my own calf shed.

“From seeing other calf sheds on other farms, I changed my mind on a few things and got more information on other bits from talking to the farmers through their own experience.

Inside the shed

The design of the shed originally and what was actually built are two different things, with Joe making a few adjustments along the way.

That being said, to give an idea of the size of the shed, it measures 29.75m long and 13.68m wide. The shed, you could say, is divided up into two main sections.

On one side of the shed, a large holding pen – to house a number of cows close to calve – along with two calving pens can be found, while the other side of the shed are pens for calves to be reared – which are served by one main passageway.

In total, there are 6 large group pens for claves – which Joe says can hold 15 calves each – which equates to an overall capacity of 90 calves.

The calving area

Looking first at the calving area, cows can be walked over from the cubicle shed, past the parlour (pictured below), into the large holding area – which Joe says last spring saw him fit anywhere from 10-15 cows at a time.

A bungee cord is tied from the gate to the sliding door so that Joe can walk the cows into the shed from the parlour my himself

Once cows enter the shed the sliding door – which there are two of in the shed – they immediately enter this large holding pen.

To avoid having to feed the cows silage inside the shed, Joe left room to install a feeding barrier at the front of the shed.

He installed a head-locking feeding barrier, that can see six cows feed at any one time. Joe says that when cows are close to calving, they don’t have as big of an appetite and, as such, there doesn’t be cows queuing up to eat at the feeder when there are more than six cows in the holding pen.

The head-locking barriers, also, give Joe the option of locking in and calving a cow from there, but, so far he hasn’t used it for that purpose.

Instead, most of his cows calve in either one of the two designated calving pens. These two pens are served with a calving gate.

The fact these calving pens and large holding are located this side of the shed, is simply for Joe to be able to walk the cows across to the parlour beside it to milk them at ease.

Calf pens and automatic feeding station

The other section of the shed, consists of the calf pens and main passage area. This section of the shed is accessed mainly through the other sliding door located at the side of the shed.

When entering through this sliding door at the side of the shed, the first pen to the right and the one directly opposite it are where the youngest calves are held.

From here, Joe trains them onto standard teat feeders before moving them further up the shed – where calves are fed using automatic calf feeders.

This, Joe says, is where the most time is saved during spring. He installed a two-station DeLaval automatic calf feeding system and says it was the “best investment he made”.

This two-station, typically, at peak, was feeding 60 calves last spring and did a “great job in rearing calves and saved me two-to-three hours a day feeding calves” Joe added.

The fact that the gates between all the pens can be shortened (pictured below) and pushed back to the wall means Joe can turn two pens into one and have more calves using the automatic feeders.

To encourage calves to feed or show them to the automatic feeders during the night, Joe installed a photocell light (pictured below) – above the automatic feeders – which will come on when daylight turns to darkness.

Lastly, there is no fear of water running out in order to keep the calf feeders in action. The two-station feeder is connected up to the mains water supply and if the water was cut off, a tank, with the capacity to hold 200 litres was installed.

As well as the gates being able to be shortened, all the gate posts are in sleeves, which means Joe can pull them up and clean out the shed, for example, in his tractor, with ease – without having the fear of accidently tipping anything with the tractor.

To rule out the risk of a leaking trough dampening the bedding under the calves, Joe opted to install the small water drinkers to the front of the pens.

This means, if a trough were to leak, it would only mean a small area of the pen would be affected and the water could drain away down the drains located on either side of the centre passageway.

Furthermore, to keep the pens as dry as possible, Joe incorporated a fall in the concrete floor to allow for water/faeces drain towards the drains in the middle of the shed.

To prevent straw from making its way out to the centre passageway and clogging up the drains, Joe installed timber boards, along the front of the pens as well.

The main centre passageway acts mainly as a storage area for pallets of milk replacer and concentrates. In the future, due to leaving a bay’s width for the entrance to where the calves are, Joe plans on putting a couple of individual calf crates there to make use of any idle space.

Yorkshire boarding over vented sheeting

Last but not least, having a shed with good ventilation was one area Joe wanted to get right. Having worked in sheds with a low-lying roof, Joe made sure to avoid this problem this time around in the new shed.

He also decided to go with Yorkshire boarding over vented sheeting, having come across farms that had issues with the vented sheeting blocking up over time.

Joe said: “I went with the Yorkshire boarding simply because If feel it functions better than vented sheeting. The small vents in the sheeting get blocked up easiy and quickly.

“I heard then as well that sometimes a breeze can make its way through the bottom of the sheeting up into the shed.

“I can only tell from my experience, but the Yorkshire boarding is a great job. It’s always the same temperature when you would come into the shed and it’s never stuffy or too cold.”

To add a nice finish to the boarding, Joe dipped the timber in creosote.

Cost of the calf shed

Having used up the grant he was eligible for – under the Targeted Agricultural Modernisation Scheme (TAMS II), Joe had to go about building this calf-rearing facility on his own.

The overall cost of the shed came to €78,000 excluding VAT.

Speaking about his decision to go ahead and build the calf house, Joe said: “I’m absolutely delighted. It was a must do and I have no regrets about it.

“As I said, before, having the farm laid out in a way that one person can work on their own was the goal, and where the cubicle shed, milking parlour and calf shed are now allows me to manage and work on my own in an efficient way.

“The time alone the calf shed saved me last spring and going forward in years to come will more than pay back what it cost.

“If I didn’t build the shed, I’d have to look at employing a full-time labour unit for the spring.

“The hours its saving me is huge and long gone are the days where I’ll have to sprong out dung pen by pen,” Joe concluded by saying.