Starting a livestock polytunnel can frequently be a good solution for small scale farmers and market gardeners, as well as on larger agricultural holdings. However, it is important to make the right choices when it comes to choosing, positioning and using a livestock polytunnel correctly. So, let’s go into the details of keeping agricultural polytunnels and how best to start and maintain them depending on the livestock you want to keep inside.
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Can You Keep Livestock In A Polytunnel?
A polytunnel shelter is not only useful for growing fruit and vegetables. Many farmers realise that agricultural polytunnels are also a worthwhile investment for housing livestock over the winter months, or potentially as sleeping quarters for livestock year-round.
Sheep, goats and other livestock can be housed in these affordable structures during the coldest months and, as long as the environment has been prepared correctly, they can be comfortable places for these animals to spend time in during other parts of the year.
Whatever livestock you are rearing, and no matter where your polytunnel is positioned, there are crucial welfare issues to consider before you make each decision. Key factors that you will have to decide on relate to the structure and its suitability for the animals you keep.
When selecting a livestock polytunnel, you will need to think about light levels, and ventilation. You will need to choose a cover that lets through the right amount of light. And you need to make decisions about ventilation and doorways to regulate temperatures, humidity and airflow within the space.
What Livestock Can You Keep In A Polytunnel?
In a livestock polytunnel, you can potentially keep many different animals, including smaller creatures often kept in a domestic setting: chickens, ducks, geese, quail and other birds, rabbits, and guinea pigs…
On a farm or in a rural smallholding setting, larger livestock might also be kept in a polytunnel, including sheep, goats, llamas or alpacas… even cows.
Of course, most livestock won’t be kept in a polytunnel all of the time. But a polytunnel shelter can potentially be a useful alternative to a traditional livestock barn.
What Are The Benefits of Agricultural Polytunnels?
To list just some of the benefit of keeping livestock in a polytunnel:
- These cost less than traditional livestock barns or other buildings.
- Natural light entering the structure can potentially keep harmful pathogens at bay and reduce any mould or damp issues.
- Sunlight provides warmth for the stock and can improve animal welfare even when animals must be undercover.
- The warmer environment also potentially increases the food conversion ratio with livestock, so potentially, less fodder or purchased feed will be required.
- Dry and warm conditions can make a cleaner and healthier environment for both farmers and livestock.
Where Should You Put A Livestock Polytunnel?
Choosing where to position a livestock polytunnel is just as important as making the right decisions about the structure itself.
You need to think carefully about where you place a livestock polytunnel within the landscape, and also its orientation.
One of the first stages in determining a good location for your polytunnel is understanding the sectors of the site. Sectors determine the energy flow on the site – in terms of sun, wind and water. Sectors can also tell us about other natural factors of a location, such as shade, and micro-climate conditions.
Very windy locations can shorten the life of a polytunnel, or even destroy one if it is improperly positioned. For this reason, it is usually best to choose a sheltered location when keeping livestock in a polytunnel.
However, it can be useful to have an opening end of a polytunnel facing the prevailing wind so both ends can be opened up to allow wind to flow through. This not only reducing wind stress on the structure but also, of course, improves ventilation for any livestock kept inside.
Make sure that there is good airflow inside the polytunnel by leaving enough space around its ends. And also leave space for practicalities, such as moving the livestock in and out, mucking out etc…
Practical considerations of water, access and electricity are also key things to think about when deciding where to place a livestock polytunnel. Of course, you should also make sure that the position you choose allows the polytunnel to be integrated seamlessly into the overall, holistic farm plan.
For safety reasons, never position a polytunnel below overhead power lines, on which large icicles may form which, when they fall, could potentially be fatal to people or animals. And look out for other things that might pose a risk to your livestock or to you or other farmers.
How To Run A Successful Livestock Polytunnel
There are of course many different ways to keep and manage livestock successfully. How precisely you use a livestock polytunnel will naturally depend on your overall livestock management plans on your farm, and the intricacies of its operations.
In many modern, regenerative farming enterprises, livestock are moved frequently around pastures and fields. Therefore, a livestock polytunnel may be a stopping-off point for livestock management, with the livestock frequently moved through it on rotations.
In other cases, a livestock polytunnel may be a more permanent housing, for some or all of the year. Where this is the case, of course, there are many more considerations when it comes to maintaining a healthy environment for your charges.
Here are the broad things to think more about before you commit to starting a livestock polytunnel:
- Plan ahead – make sure the polytunnel will work within your overall farm plans – focussing on the big picture before you then hone in on the details.
- Determine the best layout for you and for the livestock in your care. Make sure there is enough space and that the layout will be functional, practical and sustainable over time.
- Ensure that the space will not overheat, and that ventilation is good enough, but also that animals will be warm enough in cold conditions if this is when the polytunnel is used.
- Consider lighting carefully – making sure that this works for you and for your animals.
- Make sure you understand how long animals will be in the polytunnel, and when. Get logistics in place for easy access and for moving animals when required.
- Make sure that predators cannot enter the polytunnel and that livestock are safe within it.
Starting A Polytunnel For Sheep
Using a livestock polytunnel for sheep can be a good solution where a shelter is required. However, it is important to get things right when it comes to airflow and ventilation as sheep can be susceptible to respiratory problems.
Most often, sheep will be housed in a polytunnel in winter or early spring, during the lambing season. During this period the polytunnel shelter can reduce stress for both the animals and the farmers, and improve successful lambing rates.
Running A Chicken Polytunnel
Keeping chickens in a polytunnel is something that can be done on a range of different scales – in a large commercial set up or in a small domestic polytunnel in a garden.
Chickens might be kept in a coop within a polytunnel that is well-ventilated year-round. Most frequently, however, chickens will be allowed periodic access to a polytunnel that is used to grow vegetables etc. for the rest of the year.
Unfortunately, when bird flu threat is high, free-range birds must be kept under cover. A chicken polytunnel can be the perfect solution, providing the space to allow a flock used to free-ranging to be confined while still having some space and freedom to roam.
Using A Polytunnel For Cows
Keeping cattle in a polytunnel can be an alternative solution for those who keep them in a barn over the winter months. The additional warmth and shelter that a polytunnel can provide can also potentially keep calves healthy and improve success rates during the calving period.
Of course, with larger livestock such as these, it is vital to make sure that the animals have enough space and that you have chosen a polytunnel large enough, and well designed enough, to meet their needs.
Alternative Livestock Polytunnel Uses
No matter which livestock you keep, if your animals are not in the polytunnel year round then it is likely that you will be able to use the polytunnel for other things during the rest of the year. There are many unique uses for these multi-purpose structures.
Keeping livestock in a polytunnel does not mean that you cannot also use the polytunnel for other things, and thinking about those other uses can help you to see just how useful and versatile a polytunnel can be.
Sheep 101. (n.d.). Sheep Housing. [Accessed 02/06/23] Retrieved from https://www.sheep101.info/201/housing.html
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.
To get in touch, visit https://ewspconsultancy.com.