According to Teagasc Sheep Specialist Damian Costello studies carried out by Teagasc show that farms with good sheep housing are 25% more labour efficient than farms where housing was rated as poor. This is something farmers should be mindful to when designing new housing or in assessing the suitably of existing housing to identify if changes can be easily made.

Damian highlights several key areas which can make a major difference as outlined below.

Where feeding will only take place at the front of the pen then a depth of 2.5m to 3m is typically recommended.

Feeding space and floor space requirements

Adequate feed space is an essential component underpinning positive animal performance with inadequate feeding space leading to significant issues in late pregnancy and early lactation in particular. Issues such as twin lamb disease, milk fever, the birth of weak lambs and a poor milk yield can all present a higher risk where ewes cannot all comfortably eat together.

Adequate feed space is an essential component underpinning positive animal performance

Damian says that in many sheep sheds the limiting factor on how many sheep can be housed per pen is generally inadequate feeding space rather than insufficient floor space. He advises measuring the feeding space and floor space to accurately determine how many ewes can be housed. Table 1 details the pen floor space and the feeding space required. The lower of the two measurements will determine the optimum stocking rate.

He points out that where walk through troughs are present then 600mm needs to be deducted from the total feed space available for each corner in pens.

As a general guide Damian says that where all concentrate feeding is offered from the front of the pen then relatively shallow pens of 2.5m to 3m will provide enough floor space for the number of ewes that can comfortably eat. If pens are deeper, taking a measure of 6m from front to back for example then walk-through troughs will be needed to optimise the number of ewes that can be accommodated in these pens balancing floor space and feed space.

“In some cases with deeper pens it may be possible to feed concentrates at both the front and back of pens as an alternative to walk-through troughs.

"In this case it is advisable to divide pens in the middle to facilitate one-person feeding. The requirement for feed space for silage/hay is substantially less but it’s critical that it is such that ewes have access to a constant supply of roughage, not allowing them to run out at any stage.”

Number of pen divisions

There should be a sufficient number of pen divisions present to facilitate the groups of ewes by scanned litter size and expected lambing date (based on raddle colour).

Damian explains that it is often possible in sheds to increase the number of group pens by adding some strategically placed internal dividing gates while walk-through trough may also work in cases to increase the number of pens along with potentially providing more feed space.

Adequate ventilation

Ventilation plays an important role in sheds on a number of levels. Keeping a source of fresh air flowing through the shed will remove many airborne pathogens and other harmful bacteria, cutting down on the risk of disease establishing and spreading.

Poor ventilation will also give rise to a damper environment which will increase the straw requirement and time spent topping up pens in bedded sheds. If the stocking rate in the shed has been improved by the measures described above then it is essential to also ensure that the necessary alterations are made if required to enhance ventilation.

Simple steps such as removing some side sheeting or replacing sheeting with spaced boarding will deliver significant benefits. Improving the rate of air outflow is a more challenging proposition in an existing shed and may require the outlet space to be increased or raising of some roof sheeting.

Lambing pens and facilities

In terms of lambing the general advice in low-to-medium prolificacy is one lambing pen for every nine or ten ewes. This ratio reduces to one lambing pen for every seven to eight ewes in high prolificacy flocks and possibly even lower where there is a high number of ewe lambs in the flock.

Having some lambing pens that can be set up quickly in group pens or in a passageway of the shed allows pens to be set up quickly during peak periods.

It is also advantageous to have washing facilities available in the lambing shed and a source of hot water. This will make washing of lambing equipment and tasks such as making up bottles much more efficient.

A simple sink allows for washing of bottles, stomach tube, lambing aids etc. There are a number of water heaters on the market or a kettle can provide a temporary option.

Pre-housing 10-point checklist

Damian has covered several other useful points in his 10-point checklist.

  • Ensure sheep housing is thoroughly cleaned out well in advance of planned housing date with enough time for it to fully dry out.
  • Many sheep houses may have housed store lambs for finishing in the run up to the housing of the ewes – beware of carryover issues such as external parasites and seek veterinary advice on disinfection of all hard surfaces where there have been issues such as sheep scab, lice etc.
  • Check feed barriers, pen dividers, gates, latches and carry out repairs as necessary.
  • Carry out any necessary modifications such as providing extra trough space, additional pen divisions or measures to improve ventilation.
  • Clean out water troughs and check for any leaking pipes and fittings – the optimum height for drinkers is 600mm from floor level to help prevent soiling by sheep.
  • It is also important to check that drinkers or other such obstacles are not positioned within the pens where they pose a risk of injury to ewes particularly at feeding time.
  • If there are any issues with lighting or power sockets have an electrician check them out.
  • Avoid housing sheep with wet fleeces – it gives rise to high humidity in the shed that can lead to respiratory problems and it can take a week for a wet fleece to dry out after housing.
  • In straw bedded sheds ensure adequate straw has been sourced to keep the environment clean and dry.
  • If you don’t already have one in place consider providing a work station that will include storage area for equipment, a sink with adjoining preparation area along with a simple water heating system – at a relatively modest cost this proves invaluable at lambing time.