Buildings Focus: ‘Biting the bullet’ by building a 150-cubicle shed in Co. Offaly

Farming in Dunkerrin, Co. Offaly, Joe and Karen Smyth – a husband-and-wife team – milk a herd of 145 British-cross Holstein Friesian cows.

The duo, along with their children, full-time employee Roddy Teehan and relief milker Eoin England, operate a spring-calving herd on a milking platform of 220ac.

Since Joe went back milking full-time in 1999, after a couple of years running a suckler enterprise and a contracting business – he has grown the milking herd gradually over a 20-year period.

In 1999, Joe wiped the dust off the old six-unit herringbone parlour that was installed back in the late 1970s by his late father, Paddy, and mother, Mary, and started back milking 30 cows.

In 2013, the herd had grown to over 70 cows, so the duo decided to install a new 14-unit parlour.

Since then, especially after milk quotas were abolished in 2015, the milking herd expanded rapidly and has now doubled in size since the new parlour went in.

However, over the last few years, housing space has been an issue and also the cost of housing these extra cows.

Explaining the decision to build a new housing facility, Joe said: “Housing has been tight since we expanded, especially over the last few years.

“We have had to split the cows between a cubicle house – with 60 beds – and a dry shed, that we would have bedded with straw and peat.

From a labour and cost point of view, it made sense to go and build a shed that could house all of our cows under the one roof.

“Over time, if we kept doing what were doing, we would have the cost of this shed and more spent on buying straw and, in particular, peat.”

Karen and Joe Smyth

Design

Once Joe and Karen knew where they wanted to build their new housing facility they contacted Brian England of Brian England Building Solutions, who designed the new unit.

The new cubicle house was built on a greenfield site – located right beside the main farmyard – that required a lot of excavation work, which Joe and his neighbour Bobby Lewis completed.

The concrete work was carried out by David Grant Farm Buildings, while the shed itself, including the steel frame, cubicles and feed barriers were sourced from Gleeson Steel & Engineering.

The entire unit was erected by David Grant Farm Buildings. All the electrical work was carried out by Paul Fogarty. Construction began in April of last year and the new build was completed by the first week in November.

Data source: Brian England Building Solutions

Taking a look at the unit in more detail, the cubicle shed is eight bays long, with each span 4.8m in length. A roof overhang – 2.44m in length – is incorporated along the three sides of the shed – where the cows can be fed from – to prevent rain getting into the shed.

The building is 38.5m long and 31.9m wide. The unit stands at 9.4m high at the apex and 4.6m to the eve gutters.

The concrete walls of the shed stand 2.4m high. The two slatted tanks are both 38.8m long and 4.8m wide. There are two agitation points at either end of the shed.

There are three rows of back-to-back cubicles (150 cubicles altogether). Each cubicle is 2.1m long and 1.15m wide.

The two outer passages, between the feed passage and the first row of cubicles are 4.5m apart, while the two inner passages in between each row of cubicles are 2.4m wide.

Data source: Brian England Building Solutions

Doubts quenched over spaced sheeting

The first thing that you notice when you walk into the unit is how airy and spacious it is.

The fact that up to 150 cows can be housed in the shed and up to 170 cows can be fed from the three sides of the shed, good airflow, like so many new builds these days, is one of the key components of this new housing facility.

Joe and Karen opted to install spaced sheeting on the roof, a decision which Joe was completely against at the beginning but now believes is a “super job”.

He said: “Originally, when we were designing the shed, I said from minute one I didn’t want spaced sheeting. But after giving it some more thought and witnessing what it is like last winter I am delighted we went with it.

It was raining heavy here during the week and I couldn’t get over how little water came into the shed through the spaced sheeting – a few drops at most I’d say.

“We have good airflow in and out of the shed through the three open sides of the shed, but it’s great to have another escape route for foul air and an inlet for fresh air to come in through in the roof.”

What’s inside?

Taking a closer look at the features of the shed, as mentioned above, 150 cubicles were installed in the unit, with mats placed in each stall – that Joe himself fitted.

Installed in each of the passageways – four in total –  is an Alfco rope scraper, which were sourced from Portumna Farm and Dairy Services, which Joe says were one of the “best investments” they made.

Joe explained: “The automatic scrapers have been a great job. We have had no bother with them at all. The only time we have had to go in is when we would be feeding the cows beet.

“The dung after them would be quite hard and it wouldn’t go down the slats, so we would just come in with the loader and take it out.

“Either from that, we couldn’t be happier with them. A major reason for deciding to build a new shed was because we were burned out keeping cows bedded with straw and peat.

We would have to bed them every two days and it was very labour intensive.

“As of now, with the new shed, all we have to do is turn on the scraper and throw a bit of lime along the cubicles and we are done.”

Another nice feature of the shed is the installation of three Teemore ‘fast empty drinkers’.

Joe explained: “We contemplated for a while whether to go with a tip-over trough, as they are commonly used on farms nowadays, but we felt with the ones we installed, there would be less problems with them.

With the tip-over troughs, we felt that over time the opening and closing mechanism could give bother.

“With the troughs we installed, all you have to do is turn a handle and it allows for the drinker to empty in a matter of seconds.”

In the middle of each row of cubicles and at the top end of the shed is a gate that allows Joe and Karen to separate their cows with ease and keep, for example, cows close to calving on one side of the shed and ones that are not due (to calf) for a while on the other side.

Karen said that it has been a huge help and emphasised that at calving over the last few years in the old sheds that it was a “bit of nightmare” trying to separate cows and move them between sheds.

Also, at the front of the shed, where the two slatted tanks are, the concrete is grooved, just to provide extra grip for the cows, for when they are housed and also for when they are coming in for milking.

‘Ease of access’

Four sliding-doors were installed at the back of the shed, which give the Smyths access to each passageway.

Joe said: “The main reason for this [access points leading into each passageway] is that if god forbid a cow couldn’t get up that we would be able to go in and help her.

If a cow did go down, in particular in the middle passageway, it would have been difficult to get in there with any kind of machine as it is quite tight.

“The fact that we can drive in from one end to the other, through any of the passageways just makes life so much easier.

“Even for simple things such as power washing down the cubicles for example.

“Also, the shed is set up in a way that the cows can come in from the milking platform and walk through the shed and down into the milking parlour – which is very handy.”

Feed space

Feeding during the winter period was a very labour intensive job on the Smyths farm over the last few years, as cow numbers increased.

Due to the cows being housed in various sheds, it was taking a substantial amount of time to feed them.

This, in turn, was another reason for the need for a new shed, which would allow for all the cows to be housed and fed under the one roof.

Joe explained: “Feeding time was becoming very labour intensive over the last few years. Between feeding and bedding every second day, it was just becoming unsustainable.

“With the new shed, we have the capacity to feed up to 170 cows all at the one time. Another bonus was that we were able to build a silage slab right beside the new unit, which further reduces the time spent feeding the cows.

“The majority of the bales are stored around the shed, beside the feed passageway, as well, so all in all it worked out perfect.

The plan – for the last leg of the grazing season – is to zero-graze the paddocks furthest away from the shed and feed the cows in the new cubicle shed after milking.

“Then, once the cows are finished eating, we will let them out to a paddock near the parlour.

“The hope is that it will help to reduce the number of cows becoming lame and it will also save us time as well, in the sense that we won’t have to walk up to a kilometre away from the parlour to go get the cows.

“I only bought the zero-grazer recently, so we will trial it out and see how it goes. Without the new shed I wouldn’t have been able to try it out.”

Cost

The project was carried out with the aid of the Targeted Agricultural Modernisation Scheme (TAMS II).

The total cost of the build – which also includes a silage slab – was €247,000 (including VAT).

Commenting on the new build, Joe said: “Overall, we couldn’t be happier with how it turned out. The shed is standing to us at €147,000 when you take into account the grant and claim the VAT back.

“We did the calculations before we started and if we had continued the way we were operating, between the cost of buying in straw and peat every year, we would have the cost of this shed, after the grant and VAT is taken off, spent.

So, it made complete sense to build a new housing facility that not only made sense financially, but also physically – in terms of the labour that was involved in feeding and bedding over the last few years that we don’t have to do as much of now.

“We couldn’t keep going the way we were operating because our bodies wouldn’t be able to take it.

“Finally, I have to say that everyone that was involved in the build did an exceptional job, so I’d just like to say thanks to everyone that helped out.”

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