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Facilities for Ontario beef cattle

News Roundup from the June 2015 issue of Canadian Cattlemen

The phone rings and the question is, “I want to build a new barn for my beef cows, are there any new designs? The Canada Plan Service plans date back 30+ years.”

The observation that beef barn design has not changed much is somewhat true. There are new fabric barns, and new flooring discussions, but the basic principles remain the same.

A better question to start with might be, “If I am starting a beef operation, what facilities do I need to look after my animals?” Sorting out the type of farm you want, and the production system you will employ, will determine what you need for facilities.

Beef Farmers of Ontario conducted an extensive study last year as it looked at what a startup beef operation would require for land, machinery and facilities. Long discussions with farmers, advisory staff, and economists considered a wide range of options.

With a beef cow-calf operation, three critical care points are easily identifiable: calving, health treatments and weaning. In Ontario, our weather determines how elaborate our calving facility needs to be. Traditional calving during the winter months requires some type of barn to protect the newborn calves from the elements, and typically include a heat source of some kind. The BFO model looks at working with nature and the seasons, with calving on grass during the summer months. This eliminates the need for a heat source, and a specific calving barn.

Treating animals for health reasons requires an excellent handling system. Under the Beef Code of Practice it is critical to handle cattle safely and humanely. The BFO model builds in a facility for handling livestock in a safe manner.

At weaning time, calves experience stress as they are separated from their mothers. This stress can be reduced using the Fence line and Two-Step weaning methods as outlined in previous Virtual Beef articles on the OMAFRA website.

The BFO model found that the optimum number of cows was around 250, and would need about 2,500 acres of land. What did the BFO model indicate as an absolute requirement for facilities to look after these animals?

The first building is a simple open-fronted pole shed, 30×100 feet or in that size range, that would serve primarily as storage for high-quality hay. Wastage from dry hay stored outside without cover can be extensive. Storing some high-quality dry hay under cover would retain quality, plus allow for hay that could be accessed in the middle of winter if it is stormy. The secondary purpose of this facility would be for sick pens and a weaning area as the hay is fed out.

The second building would be a covered handling facility, approximately 30×30 feet. This would house the crowd tub, working chute and squeeze for restraining livestock for treatment purposes.

beef animal space requirements

Where do the cows spend the winter if there is no barn for them? The BFO model uses windbreaks and bedded pack dry lots for housing the cows. Cows need shelter from wind, more than from rain or snow. By using tree lines and groves for cover, cows can get out of the wind. If they are out of the wind, cold can be managed by the animal’s internal metabolism.

Using existing trees or planting trees for windbreaks is the cheapest option for keeping cows sheltered from the elements. By bale grazing and feeding out on pasture, manure can be spread as the cows eat, supplying soil with nutrients and organic matter. In the absence of trees, portable windbreaks could be used.

For more traditional dry lots, both Western Canada and northwest Quebec ranches use wooden windbreaks to block their wintering sites from the wind.

Things to consider in locating a dry lot include:

  • Raised area for bedded pack;
  • Sufficient slope to direct run-off to proper location;
  • Windbreak for shelter;
  • Feeding area (preferably with paved surface);
  • Adjacent alleyways (for sorting livestock into different areas, feed and manure-handling equipment, etc.);
  • Sufficient distance from surface water, wells, neighbours, etc.

Proper site preparation so water from the roofs of adjacent buildings and overland flow of field run-off does not enter livestock yard area.

Machine sheds were identified as important under the BFO model to keep equipment out of the elements… the cattle actually keep better outside than the tractor does.

The facilities discussed in this article suit extensive beef production using summer calving and employ minimalist facilities.

Barry Potter is an agriculture development adviser with OMAFRA.

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