Last spring, I found time during the busy lambing and calving periods to take part in an ‘expert panel’ as DEFRA began planning their cattle housing grants. While I was comfortably the least qualified member, being part of the panel gave a useful insight into the thought process behind these grants. Nearly 18 months in the making, the recently announced Calf Housing for Health and Welfare grants make up part of the Sustainable Farming Incentive.
Why calf housing?
Early in the conversation we realised that whilst the funding pot is large, it is also limited. To fund ambitious building projects for dry cow barns or milking cow buildings would quickly blow through the budget, leaving only a few farmers able to access funding. Funding for adult cow housing projects is still in the pipeline but isn’t scheduled until the end of 2024 at the earliest.
Conversely, every calf born on a dairy farm will spend some of its life in a calf rearing shed. How long they are there will vary, but it’s clear that this period has a huge impact on their lifetime health, welfare and performance. In essence, funding calf housing provides the most impact at the lowest cost. More bang for DEFRA’s buck, allowing them to fund more building projects and help more farmers with improvement work.
What will the grants fund?
The projects are meant to be “aspirational”. They can be upgrades to existing buildings or entirely new structures, which are expected to be gold-standard and will need to be carefully designed to meet the grant criteria. Most types of building will be considered, and there are design specifications listed for mono-pitch buildings and those with ridged roofs. Projects including hutches or igloos must include a permanent roof.
Buildings are for calves under 6 months old; which cannot share air-space with older animals. There’s an expectation that the buildings will provide innovative solutions to improve calf and welfare, thus improving business sustainability. Careful consideration must be applied to the design of the buildings in order to provide a good ambient environment: the building must be in a suitable location with good drainage and ventilation to control air quality, temperature and humidity. Social contact between calves is required from 7 days old onwards, which can be through pair or group housing.
To demonstrate the value of the improvements, applications must include information on calf mortality and medicine use (disease rates). These will likely be compared to performance once the building is in use. Temperature and humidity monitoring in the new buildings are also required.
Why are the grants so specific?
Aiming to build gold-standard buildings, the grants were broadly set up based on our recommendations to follow Wisconsin University’s Dairyland Blueprint. These are research backed principles which ensure calf housing delivers results. Often these exceed legal minimums:
- There’s a large area required per calf. Airborne bacterial density studies and practical experience shows that the legal minimum space requirements (1.5m² lying space) are too small to give good results in terms of pneumonia control. While the Dairyland guidelines recommend 3.3m² bedded area, Defra are requiring a total area (including bedded area, lying and feeding space) based on calf weight. The grants require 3m² for calves under 100kg, 4m² for calves 100-150kg, and 5m² for calves above 150kg.
- Straw bedding is required by the grants. Newborn calves have a very narrow thermoneutral zone (10 to 26°C), outside of this they are unable to regulate their temperature. Deep bedding allows calves to snuggle in to keep warm. We’re aiming for a “nesting score” of 3 where the limbs of the calf aren’t visible when lying.
- The Defra grant requires “solid, concrete flooring, and a 1 in 20 (5%) gradient in bedded areas is required, which slopes towards a drain or drainage channel. Under-bedding drainage channels may also be included. The Wisconsin team often suggest pea gravel over concrete to allow good drainage, which I think would count as “under-bed drainage”.
- The Dairyland Blueprint recommends multiple small buildings, to allow ‘all-in all-out’ movements so the buildings can be given down-time for cleaning and disinfection. This isn’t required by the Defra grants but should be considered.
- Weather is extremely variable, as farmers know all too well. To cope with this variation (in Wisconsin, like in England), we aim to maximise natural ventilation on good days, but supplement with Positive Pressure Tube Ventilation (PPTV) on still or hot days. This requires careful siting of the proposed buildings, and when built in a sheltered or semi-sheltered location the buildings must include PPTV to ensure at least four air changes per hour. Minimum air inlets of 0.04m² per calf are needed in side-walls, and minimum outlets (e.g. covered roof ridge) of 0.04m² per calf are also required. While the grants specify Yorkshire Boarding to clad walls rather than Space Boarding, side walls with curtains or shutters allow greater flexibility and would score points for greater design innovation.
- The grants deviate from the American advice for the minimum height of external solid walls. 1.2m is required in England, compared to US guidelines to keep solid walls at 2ft high and rely of curtains to batten down the hatches on very drafty days.
- Further items required by the grants include enrichment (eg hanging balls or brushes), artificial lighting, two electrical sockets, temporary isolation for sick calves, and temperature-humidity data loggers.
How much is available?
Demand for grant funding is likely to outstrip the initial budget, so applications will be prioritised by how many of the criteria they meet and how much benefit they will deliver compared to the farms’ existing calf housing. Grants cover 40% of the costs, with a minimum grant of £15,000 (40% or a £37,500 project) and a maximum of £500,000. Further rounds of applications are expected in future. Eligible costs are listed in Box 1.
Additionally, funding for solar photovoltaic (PV) systems is available at 25%, but this money is not included in the 15 to 500 thousand range. Solar power is not required, but projects installing solar power will be more highly ranked when funding is allocated, due to the environmental benefits.
Figure 1 – Yorkshire boarding is required to clad walls, but consider curtain sides or shutters as alternatives. Credit: Teagasc
- Structures including floors, walls, roofs, reinforcements, drainage
- Fixtures including pens, ventilation, feeders, washing facilities
- Fittings including temperature and humidity loggers, heat lamps, enrichment items
- Delivery and installation
- Rooftop mounted PV solar panels including supporting equipment and structures , such as solar racking, DC to AC power inverters, performance monitoring systems and storage, including solar batteries and grid connection costs
- One-off alterations to the electrical or water supply
- Upgrade of electricity supply
Who is eligible?
Farmers in England with 11 or more cattle. The site for the buildings must be owned, or have a tenancy agreement for at least 5 years from when building works are expected to finish.
How do I apply?
Applications follow a three step process:
- Check eligibility online
- Ambient Environment Assessment – this is basically a proposal for where you will put your building, and how it will meet space, drainage and ventilation requirements. We’re able to provide you with the information needed for this if requested.
- Full application – including things like tenancy agreements, quotations for the costs, financial information and projected timelines. This also requires a written letter from your vet confirming that your application has been discussed with them, and that they support your application. One way to do this would be to apply for an Annual Health and Welfare Review visit, which will cover the costs of the consultation.
Please contact us to book in your vet visit to discuss your grant application. These are proving very popular, and with plenty of funding on offer it’s no surprise!
More information on the Dairyland Housing initiative can be found at https://thedairylandinitiative.vetmed.wisc.edu/home/housing-module/replacement-housing/key-features-for-all-calf-barns/
Application details for the grants can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/calf-housing-for-health-and-welfare-2023