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CAFRE

Polytunnels provide a cost effective winter housing option

February 3, 2021

Faced with the dilemma of not having enough winter housing? That’s just one issue which has been addressed by the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) at Business Development Group meetings. The meetings provide an opportunity for farmers to connect with CAFRE Advisers to explore developments for their farm with the aim of improving technical efficiency and profitability of their farm business.

At a recent Business Development Group (BDG) meeting winter housing was a topic that was discussed by CAFRE Adviser Stephen Flanagan. You may have noticed a number of polytunnels erected on farms across the UK and Ireland. The notion that a polytunnel is a poor man’s livestock house is certainly no longer the case. Advancements in structural design, developments in covering materials, and improved engineering techniques make them a truly credible, inexpensive alternative to traditional livestock buildings.

Philip Whyte, Portglenone, is one such farmer who erected a polytunnel for winter housing his ewes as his ‘lockdown’ project.  Philip runs a commercial ewe flock alongside a pedigree Texel flock and also sells Simmental breeding stock from his small pedigree herd. 

Philip had access to an old tunnel on a relative’s farm and decided to restore, modify and re-erect it on his own farm. Philip was able to do most of the work himself, and involved his wife and children in his lockdown project. It wasn’t long until his children understood what a socket set was and that the 13, 17 and 19mm spanners where the three most important tools on site!

Philip Whyte, with daughter Ellie (aged 8) and son Jack (aged 6), showing off their polytunnel, outside Portglenone
Philip Whyte, with daughter Ellie (aged 8) and son Jack (aged 6), inside their polytunnel, outside Portglenone

Choosing the perfect site was key in Philip’s mind when deciding on where to relocate the polytunnel on his farm.

“Avoid flood risk areas, select a site which is free draining and if needed dig a few drains out from the site to allow the floor to stay dry when livestock are housed.  Some level sites with good drainage are suitable for polytunnels to be erected directly on topsoil, but in reality most sites will need the top 300 mm dug out and filled with hard core and topped with blinding to aid drainage”, advised CAFRE’s Stephen Flanagan.

 “It is important to choose a sheltered spot, as polytunnels can be prone to damage in strong winds. Try to erect the polytunnel with the gable end facing the prevailing wind so both ends can be opened up to allow wind to flow through and cause less damage.  Provide enough space around the outside of the tunnel to allow adequate air flow to keep the internal environment healthy, fresh and free from odours for both the farmer and animals. 

Also allow enough space at both ends for ease of cleaning out and an area for storing or loading the used bedding. Make water and electricity are close by to easily service the polytunnels. Don’t position under overhead power lines as large icicles can form in freezing conditions and damage the cover (or even be fatal to animals and people) when they thaw and fall”, added Stephen.

The new housing is offering both Philip and his ewes many benefits. The polytunnels provide much welcomed light and warmth with improved food conversion rates and a healthier, drier environment, less favourable to many bacteria and fungi growth. This natural short-wave radiation from daylight also helps create drier conditions reducing bedding costs and energy requirements.

On considering the size of the tunnel required Stephen advises, “It depends on how many sheep you want to house or what area you have available as a suitable site. Competition for space can contribute to serious health and welfare problems as nutritional and social stresses increase in the run up to lambing.  Ideally plan for 1.0 – 1.2 m2 floor space for medium size ewes up to 80 kg. Allow 0.30 – 0.35 m feeding space per medium sized ewe which enables concentrate to be fed to all ewes at once”.

Polytunnels offer a highly versatile addition on the farm. When lambing season is finished, it can be used as a handling unit, a dry storage area for machinery, fertiliser, feedstuff or wool. The tunnel can be used to hold over groups of sheep to help them dry out pre-clipping or post-dipping or when sheep have had their wool dyed pre-sale. An empty tunnel can be used to rear calves, or grow crops and flowers to supply local shops and garden centres, making the polytunnel a truly year round investment.

Philip shared the costs of his project with his local BDG sheep group members when they met online. When all costs were taken into account, including the second hand frame, gates at each end, site preparation, concreting in the hoops, timber, wind breakers, the plastic roof, spouting, sheep wire and additional paid labour the total came to approximately £2,700.  This total however does not include the internal fixtures such as gates, hurdles and feeding troughs and hopefully a soon to be fitted lambing camera.

Philip has been able to make this investment in confidence because he benchmarks his business through CAFRE and this provides him with detailed physical and financial figures for his sheep enterprise.

Philip’s lockdown project is now filled with in-lamb ewes, and he is looking forward to lambing in the pleasant environment which the polytunnel now provides. The ewes, Philip and his family, who are very much involved on the farm and were instrumental in getting this project over the line and keeping Philip on his toes with sockets and the trusted 17mm spanner will all benefit from their new winter housing!

The Business Development Groups scheme is part-funded by the EU through the Rural Development Programme 2014-2020.