Modern Farm Buildings

An edited version of a presentation given by Graham Brooks in 2004

The type of modern farm building shown above is probably the commonest type in Cumbria. Basically a concrete and steel structure, meaning that it can be very difficult to tell what its function is, unlike some of the early farm buildings where the function of the building has driven its design. Most are used to house cattle either dairy or beef during the winter months or for lambing sheep in. Occasionally they are used to house machinery, or to store food, and very rarely in Cumbria pigs and poultry which are being kept on a more extensive system.

What drove the development of this type of building and the move away from the more traditional buildings? If we go back to the late 1950’s we see a time in agriculture when expansion was driven forward by the government to try and ensure that the country was self sufficient in those products that we were capable of producing ourselves.

 Traditional byres. If we look at dairy cattle in particular then the traditional type of winter housing in Cumbria was the byre. Each cow had its own bed within usually a two cow standing. Each cow was tied up by the neck with either a chain or a rope. On a slide to allow it to stand and lie at will. Originally the partitions were wood or occasionally stone but later precast concrete was the commonest. There was a feed trough in front and also a water bowl on a piped supply.. With the introduction of milking machines most of the byres had a vacuum line to which a milking unit could be attached to allow each cow to be milked twice daily.

The main problem with this system is that it is very labour intensive. Each cow has to be fed individually and if you consider a dairy cow eats about 12kg of dry matter daily then that involves if we consider hay with a dry matter content of 50% putting 24kg of hay in front of each cow manually and if we start to consider silage which was starting to become more popular about this time with a dry matter of 25% then we are starting to talk about 48Kg of silage per cow to be moved daily. Most byres were designed with small doorways so tractor access was not available. Moreover – without being too graphic –  if you are putting 40 plus kilos in at the front end a considerable amount needs to come out at the back end also. This again all needs manual moving.

Loose housing. So by the end of the 1950’s we have a dairy industry being driven to expand by the government with a system that is very manual dependant and also a reducing labour force.

Some of the more progressive farmers had decided that by putting the milking plant in a separate building i.e. a parlour they could milk a lot more cows at a lower capital cost as you did not need to put piping thorough all the buildings. This however meant that the cows needed to be free to move to the parlour so could no longer be fastened up. This also meant that if the cows were free to move then they could move to their feed rather than bringing it to them. So by the late 1950’s a few farmers had decided to loose house their cows in cattle courts and with silage pits they could access their own silage for feed.

The two main problems with this system were loose housed cows will not lie down in nice neat lines like they do when tied up and therefore the relative floor area required by each cow is much greater so a relatively larger building is required. Also if they are being housed loose the requirements for straw to lie on also becomes much greater with a requirement of about 10 tons compared to 1 in a tie stall. Cumbria is not an arable county and so there is a problem loose housing cattle on straw it becomes expensive to buy in straw to allow it.

Cubicles. A few people then decided to try and design a loose housed system but on the principles of the old byre where each cow had its own lying area. The first person recorded in the UK to try this system was a Mr. Howell Evans from Cheshire who designed this cubicle. Each cow has its own bed and is separated by a division from its neighbour. They are free to come and go as they wish and they only require a similar amount of bedding as the in the old byre system. At this time the Cumberland and Westmorland Farm Institute at Newton Rigg had decided to expand its dairy herd from 45 cows to 110. It had been housed in a 1842 long single row rambling building that had all the problems I have already alluded to with labour and it was requiring 2 men to look after the 45 cows. They decided to build a concrete structure 135ft by 50ft to house a new silage pit and a lean to structure along one side to house the cattle and a separate milking parlour. They had heard about the Cheshire cubicle system and went to view it. They were immediately impressed by it and altered the plans to incorporate cubicles into the cow housing. They did however alter the design of the cubicle to one that became known as the Newton Rigg cubicle.This has a concrete bed with a simplified division.

 Up until the late 1980’s this type of cubicle division was the commonest throughout the UK. Fame for Cumbria! However there were a few design faults with this type of cubicle when cow comfort is considered. The second leg does impinge on the hip bones of cows and can cause injury. The rail across can also impede cows getting up; for a cow to stand up it needs to lunge forward either in a straight line or to one side. So now we have a range of more modern cubicle divisions which allow cows to move and get up more freely.

The cubicle provides ideal accommodation for the cow. It has its own space and can not be easily bullied by other cows. If correctly designed they keep the cow lying in the cubicle so that dung and urine falls into the passage behind.

Cubicle systems rapidly became the commonest type of dairy cow housing in Cumbria. Some old byres were suitable for conversion to cubicle houses, some people used other building designs that were already present such as dutch barns. But in a lot of cases the last 40 years has seen the need to build new purpose built buildings.

Construction methods. There are generally two types of cubicle style cow housing. The kennel type which is usually of wooden construction and the cubicles form part of the structure. Or the general purpose building which is then fitted out with cubicles. Some of the early buildings like the one at Newton Rigg used concrete for the main structures. But the majority now rely on a framework of steel to support the roof which is invariably some form of sheeting, usually cement. Metal sheeting usually gets too much condensation to be suitable for animal housing.

So we have the basic structure made of steel, the verticals are usually bolted to the foundation pads, and we need to fill the walls. There are three types of construction that have been commonly used. The first is a block wall using large concrete blocks. For extra strength these can be built over reinforcing rods and the holes down the centre can be filled with concrete once the initial wall has set. The second type of wall is the poured wall. Steel and wood shuttering is fastened between the steel uprights, reinforcing mesh is placed in the centre, and concrete is then poured into the gap and allowed to set before the shuttering is moved onto the next section. The final system which is now becoming more common are the precast slabs of concrete which fit neatly between the uprights and can be easily lifted into place using farm machinery and are held there by small metal clips. A novel form of walling that is becoming popular is the use of old concrete railway sleepers slotted into the channels on the metal beams and cemented together. These have replaced the use of wooden sleepers

Above the concrete walls the type of walling used tends to give some idea what the building is being used for. Solid walling such as sheeting usually suggests that the building is being used for storage either of machinery or food etc. If animals are being housed then some form of ventilation is required. This can take the form of Yorkshire boarding with a gap between each board to allow air to enter but stop the wind blowing straight in, or perforated sheeting can be used.

 Ventilation is very important in animal buildings of this type and it usually relies upon the stack effect. This is were the animals’ own body heat causes the hot air to rise and remove the moisture and take away any respiratory bugs from the animals. However when it gets to the roof it does have to have somewhere to go otherwise it simple cools and falls back down onto the animals rather than drawing fresh air in from outside the building. Therefore you will see large gaps in roofs in animal sheds in Cumbria. Usually the ridge is left open especially if it is over a feed passage, or another simple way is to groove the ridges on the sheets. This lets hot air out without allowing rain to enter.

The beds of cubicles have been constructed out of a variety of material over the last forty years. They do need a heel step which has two functions. Firstly, very few cows will back up a step therefore they can not enter the cubicle backwards. You will occasionally see cows laid the wrong way round in cubicles but most of these have learned to turn round in the cubicle. Secondly it allows the removal of the dung and urine from the shed without it contaminating the beds.

Compacted limestone, tyres and sand have all been tried for the beds of cubicles. But the commonest bed is now concrete onto which some form of rubber mat is fixed. These are then covered with a light covering of a bedding material – chopped straw, shredded newspaper or sawdust.The bedding material is usually determined by the slurry handling system present on the farm.

 Slurry. Slurry removal has been mechanised by the use of automatic scrappers which are either chain driven or hydraulic operated. They usually deposit the slurry through a series of slats into a underground channel system. Some sheds have a slurry chamber under the passageway that is covered with slats and the movement of animals along the passage forces the dung through the slats. Modern legal requirements mean that the storage capacity for slurry on the farm has to be very high and therefore either large lagoons or large steel holding tanks above ground are built.

Silage. Silage is now the ubiquitous feed for cattle in Cumbria and it has led to its own types of building.

Silage is basically a pickling process. The natural sugars present in the grass are allowed to be fermented into organic acids that then pickle the grass and prevent it from rotting. To ensure this occurs properly a wide variety of additives are added usually some form of bacteria that produce specific acids under anaerobic conditions. If the wrong acids are produced then you do get silage but it smells disgusting and is not palatable to cattle!

 In the 60’s there was a craze for putting silage into large concrete silos. It was then removed by a special machine that allowed it to be fed via a conveyor belt direct to the cattle. Alas not very successful. You still see earth bank silage clamps around although new ones are not now permitted due to the risk of pollution. The sides are sealed with new plastic sheeting each year. Nearly all silage clamps are now concrete lined and these are well sealed between the joints to prevent leakage. Most now also have a roof on to prevent rain leaching silage effluent from it. This leads to probably one of the most distinctive buildings on the farm due to its height. This is needed to allow a tractor to drive over the silage as it is put into the pit to compress it and exclude all the air.

The milking parlour. Some people simple converted the old byre by placing milking points in the centre of each standing. The concrete partitions may have been extended with metal uprights to make it easier to confine the cow to the stall whilst milking. Most have built new systems:

An abreast parlour looks similar to the old byre system and a lot of them are still in old converted byre systems They differ from conversions by having their own structure and usually gates on the front of each standing to allow cows to leave forwards rather than having to back off the high step to give a one way system for better cow management..

The herring bone parlour is where the cows stand down either side of the pit usually at an angle of between 45° to 90°. Modern parlours of this type are getting very long with anything up to 36 standings per side. They either have a set of milking units for each side or a single set of centrally mounted units that can be swung over to either side.

Very big units have rotary parlours which are like a merry-go-round. The cows stand on a slow moving platform and it slowly rotates as the cow is milked and then it is let off. This cuts down on the amount of movement the cow man has to do as each cow is presented to him directly.

 Robotic milkers are also now available which are stationed in one part of the shed and the cow visits it and is milked as it wants. This reduces the man power required.

In conclusion. So I would ask you if you go to a farm, do not just record the old buildings but please make a note of the modern buildings which are just as much a part of the farm’s history. Traditional farm buildings are often converted into houses which retains some of the original fabric on the original footprint. Some are preserved in such places as Beamish Museum. Modern buildings are simply demolished!

(Page created 20/04/17)