Roofless sheep housing could provide a high welfare option for managing pregnant ewes as competition for winter tack intensifies.

At Marchynys Farm on Anglesey, John and Eirwen Foulkes and their son, Jack, house Suffolk x Mule yearlings in a slatted five-pen roofless unit from November to the end of February.

It is earmarked for this group of animals because they are the last to lamb and therefore need to be housed the longest.

It accommodates 650 sheep and was built without a roof not as a cost saving measure but to preserve pasture and to support flock health.

“It is a high welfare unit, the sheep thrive on it,’’ says John.

The unit was built next to the farmyard because the site was in a sheltered position and it was close to the other sheds. It was also on a slight incline which minimised the excavation work.

Sheep are on the slats for two and a half months before they are moved into the lambing shed a month before lambing.

Mr Foulkes calculates that housing on straw for this length of time would cost at least £2/head in bedding so he is making a saving of £1,300 as well as the labour cost of bedding up the pens.

But contrary to what others might perceive, it is a high welfare option but not a cheap one, says Mr Foulkes.

“It cost us £12,000 plus another £10,000 for the slats but that was 12 years ago and we did most of the building work ourselves," he said.

“It wouldn’t have cost us much more to put a roof on it, the floor was the most expensive component.’’

At today’s prices, he estimates that it would cost £10,000/pen for the building work and plastic slatted floors.

After 12 years of use, the wire mesh floors are being replaced with plastic slats – the slats work out at £4,500/pen.

“The steel mesh is coming to the end of its lifetime so we have replaced it in two pens and will replace the others in due course,’’ says Mr Foulkes.

“The plastic slats are more expensive but far more superior to the wire mesh and the muck falls easily through them.’’

The muck is contained in a one-metre deep underground store which is cleaned out every two years.

The overall health of the sheep on this system is excellent, Mr Foulkes reports.

“They are standing dry with shelter from the wind and there are obviously no problems from stale air.’’

And it is a good option for protecting foot health, he adds.

“It is far better than any bedded area because feet are dry.

“This is also a much better option than having sheep standing deep in mud around a ring feeder in a field.’’

With farmers reporting less availability of winter tack grazing, this could provide them with a solution, says Mr Foulkes.

As the sheep don’t move off the farm, it gives him full control of their diet throughout their pregnancy.

“If you are bringing sheep home from tack three weeks before they lamb they will be coming back in good condition and not used to eating silage and concentrates.

“This can result in a big energy dip that leads to all sorts of problems.’’

The system, says Mr Foulkes, is best suited to feeding clamp silage, not big bales.

“The silage needs to be cut short, if it was in big bale form they would pull it underneath the barrier and it would clog up the slats.’’