Initially installed for cattle, one Barnsley-based Roundhouse owner says the building is ideal for the health of the sheep and visitors to his farm.
With a thriving education and visitor attraction, as well as farm shop, multiple restaurants, cafe and bar on site, Cannon Hall Farm, Yorkshire, is a busy place, with the animals the farm keeps the star attractions.
However, for partner in the family farm business, Robert Nicholson, animal health, comfort and performance are the farm’s top priorities.
Cannon Hall Farm may be one of the ultimate diversification projects, welcoming more than 350,000 visitors per year, but the 77-hectare farm still has to be fully functional and operate commercially, with the visitors an added bonus.
All meat produced on-farm is butchered and sold through the farm shop and its restaurants, slaughtered at a local abattoir just four miles away, keeping food miles to a minimum.
This is something Mr Nicholson says is becoming increasingly important with its customers.
The 500 ewes which the farm runs are made up of 300 Texel cross Charollais, 50 Mules, 50 Zwartbles and a range of native breeds, including Kerry Hill, Jacob, Hebridean and Soay.
These are brought into the farm’s Roundhouse shed three weeks before lambing.
Constructed in 2008, Mr Nicholson says the building was originally erected for the farm’s cattle, but a shifting of the farm’s business saw the cattle move out into more traditional accommodation, with the Roundhouse earmarked as an ideal place for the public to view sheep at lambing time.
Some 300 cross-bred suckled calves are bought and fattened each year, with a herd of 18 pedigree Beef Shorthorn cows a recent introduction to the farm.
While he was happy with the performance of the cattle in the building, he was initially sceptical about housing the farm’s flock in it, as it is so exposed. However, these fears were soon allayed.
The principle of the Roundhouse is to allow for maximum ventilation to promote healthy respiratory function, and this is certainly the case at Cannon Hall Farm, with little or no protection from wind around the circumference.
Mr Nicholson says while this is good for keeping the air moving, snow can be a problem, as it was in 2018, blowing throughout the shed.
He says, in future, the farm may look at putting canvas wind breaks up to stop this.
As this was previously a cattle shed, the hurdles separating the pens are 1.8m tall, with stock board cladding, substantially higher than normal sheep hurdles.
He says: “Leaving them in was actually a wise move, as they now act like a wall which the sheep can shelter behind, beneficial when the wind is strong.”
At full capacity, Mr Nicholson says 450 ewes can be housed prior to lambing, and put in single mothering pens for 24 hours post-parturition.
One section of the shed is kept specifically for mothering pens, made up of portable hurdles put in as the ewes lamb.
Mr Nicholson says given the shape of the pens, he has been pleasantly surprised by the amount of pens he can actually fit in.
Feeding is done with big bale hay racks and feed troughs on the floor of each pen, ensuring every ewe gets access to feed.
Lambing on-farm is dictated by school holiday times, giving visitors the best chance of seeing lambs born.
Splitting the lambing also gives benefits for the farm shop, as a range of ages and weights can be sold, ensuring plenty of choice for customers.
The cattle handling portion of the shed is now used as a convenience area, where milk can be mixed and lambing equipment and feed stored.
The sheep handling system is situated away from the building, however, Mr Nicholson says the area would be ideal for drafting and handling sheep, so may consider moving the setup inside at some point.
Within the central portion of the shed, above the forcing pen a gantry has been put in to give a 360 degree view of the shed, allowing visitors to see all the action.
He says with the customers being well above the sheep, sheep are not too distracted, and quickly get used to a bit of extra noise.
Keeping the ewes well-bedded is down to a Spread-a-Bale bale dispenser, mounted on one of the farm’s two JCB TM320S pivot-steer loaders.
“This gives good coverage of the pens and is quick to use, while being relatively dust-free,” Mr Nicholson says.
Concerns over the durability of the Roundhouse’s PVC-coated fabric roof means a straw chopper has not been used.
In fact, the roof has surpassed all of Mr Nicholson’s expectations, with not a single mark on it.
He says the night of November 5 is always a nail-biting occasion, but so far the roof has proved very durable and has been without incident.
Mucking out is done by removing the kickboard and going into the pens through the feed barriers. Mr Nicholson says the pens are plenty big enough to get the farm’s loaders into it, and it is easy enough to remove all the muck, even in the narrowest part of the pens’ taper.
During this, sheep are moved into a free pen if available, or held in the middle section while the task is carried out.
The farm opted to have a stone floor put down instead of a concrete base, as the cost was significantly lower and drainage is better. Layers of compacted road planings make up the base, which has held up well, according to Mr Nicholson.
One point he does make is the farm has changed the tools it uses to muck out with, opting for a muck grab rather than a bucket.
He says a bucket tended to dig in on the extremities of the leading edge and remove chunks of the base, whereas with a grab, the process is a lot gentler and seems to level and grade the base, with the loader recompacting it.
From time to time, they will add more planings into the pens if they think low spots are appearing.
“The combination of the ventilation and high pen dividers mean sheep are sheltered from draughts, while clean air is abundant,” he says.
“The way the shed has been designed makes working animals around it relatively stress-free.”
He says the flexibility it offers makes it ideal for what they are trying to achieve, with animal welfare and performance the main goals, while educating the public on sheep production.