Gerry Giggins: Poorly designed housing is now a major factor in disease outbreaks
Usually a new year brings a positivity and the opportunity to look forward to the 12 months ahead.
Unfortunately this is certainly not the case for the beef sector. Poor beef prices, Brexit uncertainty, reduction of the national suckler herd and the bad publicity beef has received regarding its environmental impact have all led to very low morale within the sector.
At farm level, lice and mange infestations, sweating cattle, increased viral outbreaks and delays in sending fit cattle to factories have further compounded an already poor situation.
The unseasonable mild weather that we have had for the majority of the winter has had a welcome and positive effect on grass growth.
This has allowed farmers who were tight on feed supplies to graze, zero graze or even make silage from this bonus growth period.
Unfortunately for housed cattle, this mild weather has put a huge burden on the health status. Digital dermatitis, lice/ mange and respiratory problems are very common as a result of us not receiving any prolonged period of cold and windy weather.
Poorly designed cattle sheds, from a ventilation point of view, have compounded these animal health issues.
As is witnessed by the design of many sheds constructed and grant-aided under the Farm Modernisation and Farm Waste Management scheme, for example, it is easy to see that engineers were consulted instead of those with cattle experience when it came to certain specifications.
Ventilation in particular is an area that is not given proper consideration in many designs. Specifications are more often suited to aesthetics or for human comfort rather than the animals required.
A lot of sheds that are 'closed' off with vented sheets are proving more prone to all of the health issues listed earlier.
Witnessing a shed built in the last five years with an accumulation of dust, cobwebs and animal hair is sure sign of insufficient air movement within the building.
The tried and trusted methods of space boarding, Yorkshire boarding or having no side sheeting will greatly improve ventilation in most sheds, especially in a house with beef cattle on intensive feed.
Some of the cattle yards that are encountering less of these problems this winter are those on roofless slatted units. The key to the design of these units is to ensure that animals are sheltered from the prevailing wind by high walls.
Contrary to common belief, only temperatures below -15 degrees will affect animal performance. However, a direct cold wind twinned with rain will have a much greater negative effect on performance than cold temperatures.
Most outdoor units will have 2.4-metre high walls on three sides of the pen.
On the fourth side, a high outer trough wall will provide further shelter, especially when animals are lying. It is imperative to encourage animals to have more lying time in such a system; for this reason, all units are using slat rubbers.
The perception that slurry build-up in an outdoor unit will create a huge problem is generally ill-founded. Most designs will allow for 10pc extra slurry storage during the closed period which accounts for direct rainfall into the tanks.
The benefit of this rainfall can be seen by less water required in slurry tanks, easier agitating of this slurry and less risk from slurry gases. Feed that is exposed to wet weather will suffer more than animals.
Last winter, total mixed rations using wet feeds such as beet, wet silage, brewers etc suffered from lower animal intakes and lower performance during prolonged periods of rainfall.
Drier, high-concentrate total mix rations fared much better in the wet conditions, provided they were fed on a regular basis at the correct levels. I encountered a unit in the south-east that is implementing a nearly perfect outdoor finishing system. Shelter from the prevailing wind is perfectly provided using high walls and the correct placement on an earthen bank. A simple canopy system ensures that feed is kept dry and fresh. This unit is a template that many beef farmers could follow given its low construction cost, good health status of animals and excellent performance.
Gerry Giggins is an animal nutritionist based in Co Louth
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