Herd Homes 2015

October 2015

Tom Pow and the thinking behind the development of herd homes

Northland developed Herd Homes Shelters have been constructed on more than 300 farms across New Zealand. They’ve been tested in a range of challenging conditions as a solution to dairy cow management during both winter and summer.

The Herd Homes Shelters were invented by Northland farmer Tom Pow on his 90ha Mata farm, about 20km south of Whangarei.  He came up with the idea for specialised shelters when thinking about how to house his cows after long wet spells which turned his paddocks boggy.

He investigated what was available in New Zealand and overseas but could not find anything which impressed him.   He tried cubicle barns, concrete, metal, wood chips, and sawdust stand off areas and even sacrificed paddocks, but says there was still frustration that these systems failed before the weather extremes ended.

He invented a system using a roof which allowed in light, so the excrement dried up on the concrete slat floor, minimising bacterial build-up. The cow muck is pressed through the slats and their high-fibre diet comes through and sticks to the concrete, like a compressed cow carpet, which Tom says won’t wear out their hooves. The urine and dung fall into a concrete bunker which allows the effluent to remain stable and relatively odour free, retaining its nutrients and keeping it in a suitable state to return to the farm.

Front-end loaders are used to lift the slats and dig out the muck, which is then re-spread as manure on the paddocks. In a number of farm systems, the manure is used as the primary fertiliser application on maize crops.

Tom says the Herd Homes Shelters also keep cows warm in winter and cool in summer. The only problem can be getting the cows out of the homes when the weather is bad.

In summer, a shade cloth helps create thermal air currents by drawing up the hot air and allowing new air in, making a draft. Tom says the cows don’t waste energy through panting and looking for shade.

As recent research on cow barns has shown, cows can harvest a high per cent of their feed in a grassy paddock in a couple of hours so do not have to stay outdoors all day. In Tom’s system, once they’re full, the cows can wander back to the Herd Homes Shelters where they could get extra feed and even be calved.

The savings in the use of artificial fertilisers, water and power are all a bonus and farmers are getting a 20 per cent overall return on their investment. It is claimed that some of the Herd Homes Shelters have paid for themselves within three years.

Over the past few years, several design changes have occurred following feedback from users and research work.

The introduction of shade cloth and a vented roof option has significantly reduced summer heat stress on cows. The airflow design ensures that during cold periods of the year, the cows own body heat is fully utilised to help maintain warmth of the animals in the shelter.

Some say the jury is still out on whether herd housing is the way to go from a range of perspectives, including animal welfare, greenhouse gas emissions and return-on-investment. There’s also the obvious issue of cost.

Andy West, past chairman of Herd Homes Shelters and currently vice-chancellor of Lincoln University, says that farmers and scientists are warming to the idea of housing cows but the future debate will be about whether cows should be housed 365 days of the year. He says the public wants chickens out of cages and pigs out of crates and wonders whether they also want cows to spend at least some time of the day on the grass. In some countries cows are permanently housed and most dairy goats are permanently housed in NZ.

If you talk to the Herd Homes Shelters clients, the benefits of using Herd Homes Shelters appear to be huge – if you do it right. Research to date suggests critical decisions include selecting the best option for your specific situation, and training your staff how to handle housed herds.

Feedback from Tom’s customers is that they have happier cows, fewer dead calves in wet winters and lower environmental impact. But it has to be done properly to get the gains, and to guard against issues like lameness or over-stocking.

Entry-level Herd Homes Shelters include a roof over a limestone feed pad or stand-off for 200 cows and these can start at around $100,000. Higher-level options include a three-bunker-wide shelter which can be four times that much. Other options include a roof-only build over an existing pad, and multi-cubicle barns. Farmers can place bedding, such as straw or rubber mats on top of the slatted floor for added cow comfort.

In May 2015 Landcorp, the nation’s biggest farmer, started work on a 300 cow herd home on one of its dairy farms near Foxton.