Spring 2024 has been memorable for all the wrong reasons on Irish farms. Following on from a poor summer and tail-end of 2023, farmers had been banking on a dry spring to get stock out early amid a scarcity in good-quality fodder and bedding. The reality was one of the wettest springs on record, with some weather stations ranking March 2024 as the sixth wettest, with March 2023 ranked as the fifth.

Lack of bedding

The knock-on effect of a delayed turnout and a scarcity of bedding, meant less-than-ideal conditions for calving and lambing this year. Clean, fresh bedding is a necessity to prevent against chills, scours, infections and watery mouth, but with straw both expensive and scarce, farmers spared what they had or looked for other sources.

Two stock types that could alternatively use plastic slatted flooring vs straw bedding are in-lamb ewes and dairy-beef calves. There are positives and negatives to both slatted and straw bedding for both.

Bedding vs slats for ewes

While some farmers will opt to lamb outdoors, a large cohort of farmers (particularly those of a part-time nature) will lamb indoors for ease of monitoring and resting of pasture. Depending on stocking rates and the time of the year of lambing, housing could be anywhere from two to 10 weeks before lambing commences.

Ewes housed on slats will generally have less foot issues, such as foot rot and scald, due to the drier conditions. Wet bedding, particularly around feed barriers and water troughs, can hugely increase the incidences of lameness and it can be difficult to isolate and treat ewes effectively.

When it comes to lambing time, fluids from the birthing process can increase the wetting of bedding, whereas for slatted floors any fluids will pass through the slats into the tank, keeping the area dry.

Slats are not without their downsides. Forage pulled in to pens can block slats and cause dung to accumulate, requiring slats to be scraped and/or power-washed. A similar issue can also be seen towards the end of pregnancy, with twin and triplet-bearing ewes on high levels of concentrates. Dung becomes soft and fails to pass through the slatted floor, with the lower activity levels of the heavily pregnant ewes not helping matters. Again, power-washing will be required.

The nesting effect, where calves insulate themselves in a deep bed of straw, is one of the main reasons why it is used so frequently.

Bedding vs slats for calves

Slats are used less commonly for calf accommodation in Ireland, but on intensive veal units in Holland and throughout the continent, slats are more commonplace than bedded pens. The main difference is that many of these units are temperature and humidity controlled, similar to intensive poultry or pig units.

One of the main benefits of using bedding for calves in an Irish scenario is what is known as ‘nesting’, where a calf insulates itself in a deep straw bed (at least 15cm).

Calves prefer an ambient temperature of 18°C, but with a deep bed of straw they can be comfortable and waste little energy in keeping themselves warm. This is one of the reasons that bedding must be kept clean at all times.

The advent of calf jackets has negated this somewhat, with the increased insulation of calves through wearing jackets helping to reduce the requirement of nesting. In this case, slats may be an option for some.

Downsides of slats

Using slatted accommodation is not without its faults, some of which are listed above. The main one, however, is that slatted pens for calves and sheep prevent those areas being used for machinery or hay/straw storage for the remainder of the year when not in use.

Some farmers have worked around this issue by overlaying slats on concrete floors to create temporary slatted accommodation, which can be removed after stock are turned-out and the space utilised for other purposes, though this does increase labour associated with slatted pens (slats will have to be lifted for cleaning out underneath) and an effluent channel and tank will be required.

The financials

Calves and ewes use a similar amount of straw per week, with both using approximately 20kg (one small square bale) per week. One of the downsides of straw buying in this country compared to the UK is that straw is bought on a per bale basis rather than per tonne, with straw weight variable depending on density and moisture content here at home.

An 8x4x3 straw bale will weigh roughly 360kg, capable of keeping 18 ewes or calves bedded for a week. Taking a typical ewe flock of 100, 5.5 of these bales will be used per week.

This year saw a cost of €100/bale being paid by those in the west of Ireland, meaning a weekly bedding cost of €550, which over an eight-week housing period equates to €4,400 of straw (€44/ewe).

Looking at tank costings, a 1,200m ² penning area would be required for our 100 ewes (1.2m²/ewe). A tank of 1.8m (6ft) depth will have ample room for storage and will likely be able to take further slurry from beef/dairy enterprises on the farm.

The TAMS III reference cost for this size tank is just shy of €24,000, and while reference costs are below what they should be, a farmer would hope to get this tank built for €17,000, exc. VAT and TAMS aid. The addition of plastic slats will increase costs further, likely to the tune of a similar price of the tank.

With very little winter crops sown last year and a delayed spring sowing, straw could again be in scarce supply this year. \ Odhran Ducie

Opinion: straw shortages not likely to go away

If straw prices continue at the current rate going forward, then the tank and slats would be paid off for in eight years, due to not having to purchase straw. I understand that a certain amount of straw will be required for lambing pens, but options on where it can be used need to be explored. The likelihood is that this year will again see a shortage in straw supplies, as few winter crops were sown and the spring sowing has failed to take off in any great way.

As listed above, slats aren’t without their faults as well, but a mix of straw and slatted accommodation is likely the happy medium. Building a 1.8m deep tank will also allow the overall farm slurry storage capacity to increase, which in springs like we’ve just witnessed can be a godsend.

While slats are not without their labour needs, bedding and cleaning out calf or sheep pens is a time-consuming task and one which very few farmers who switch to slatted flooring miss much.