When one thinks of the concept of shade, it traditionally means protection from the sun.
But as David and Katy Gillett have seen at their Jalna Feedlot in southern Victoria, the benefits and value-adding opportunity of investing in shade go far beyond a cool place to stand.
Since installing a shed structure in 2017, David said the returns to their business have been clearly apparent.
“By the time you factor in water, fertiliser, social license and performance, there’s big returns to us for the investment we’re putting into sheds, and it’s definitely going to be the way we’re going in the future,” he said.
Located 30 kilometres north of Geelong, Jalna Feedlot has a capacity of 10,000 head and operates in the domestic market space, predominantly feeding for Coles.
"All of our cattle are British-bred cattle, we don’t do any Bos indicus cattle down here at all, and our cattle are sourced from all over Victoria, southern New South Wales, and south east South Australia,” David said.
“We’re in a cool climate, but there’s a big difference even in the southern feedlots, north of the Divide to south of the Divide.
“You can have 42 degree days in Charlton and you can come over the ridge, south of the Divide, and we’ll drop down to 15 degrees, so it’s a totally different, variable climate.”
The challenge of the variable climate is what prompted the building of a shed structure.
“We saw our biggest challenge as comfort of cattle and welfare of cattle during the cold, wet winter months and by having the shed structure, we’re getting the best of both worlds; we’re getting the shade in the summer and we’re getting that warm, clean climate to keep our cattle clean and performing during the wet winter months,” David said.
“If you look at our average temperatures over the past 12 months, last summer we averaged 23.7 degrees and our hottest day was 34. We can get our hot days, we can get 40 degree days, but we don’t get day after day of it.”
They also identified with their end users, mainly being Coles, that there were issues of dirty cattle in winter time.
“So we came up with the idea that if we have the shed where we can put the cattle on bedding, cattle will start their feeding in the outside pens and by moving them into the shed their last 30 days on feed, it gives them a chance to dry out and any mud that’s on their coats or their bellies, they rub it off on the bedding,” David said.
“Since we’ve gone to this system, we haven’t had one mud penalty or any issues with dirty cattle on the abattoir floor… so it’s obviously working very well.”
David started out by going to Tasmania to look at a shed facility down there.
“They’re probably even wetter and colder than we are, and the day we were there it felt like I was in the middle of Antarctica,” he said.
“We explored their design and considered how it could work at our feedlot. After talking to our shed builders, we landed on replicating their design and only slightly tweaking the columns to what would suit our facility.”
The shed stands at 224 metres long and 48m wide, with 8m eaves and a 21 degree pitch roof, and one of the key factors to the design is a vent ridge in the top.
“In the top of that pitch there is a 1m wide by 500mm high vent ridge, a pop-up ridge, and that is the whole secret to this shed working well,” David said.
“It creates air flow and lets the air circulate through the shed, without the necessity for fans or artificial ventilation.
“Even on a warm day, if it’s dead calm outside, you can walk under the shed and it’ll be 10 or 12 degrees cooler, but you’ll actually get a breeze because that vent ridge is creating air flow.”
Another large consideration in the planning of the shed structure was the direction of the shade.
“A lot of our pens run east-west and we identified that as a major problem to putting traditional shade structures over pens for our winter time,” David said.
“We wanted to avoid having to put shade up when needed and retract in winter; that would be too prohibitive to our operation, so for us more sheds will be the go in future.
“It’s a big expense but we feel we get better bang for our buck with shedding where we are.”
They do, however, still have some pens that run north-south, so they will look to trial slatted shade structures over those in the near future, he said.
“When we built this shed running east-west - and it’s probably a good point for anybody that’s thinking about this in the future - on the south side of the shed in the laneway, during the winter time you get shading over that laneway.
“It’s very, very clear that in that shade, which is about half the width of the laneway, you don’t get any drying effect; half the lane will dry out and the other half will stay wet and muddy.
“It’s really important to evaluate the direction of your shed and shading.”
Weight gain benefits
David said one of the big benefits they’re seeing in the shed is weight gain performance.
“The cattle are coming into the shed for that last 30 days on feed and the data is telling us that last 30 days is when we’re getting the best performance out of the cattle,” he said.
“By coming into the shed, we’re seeing 0.2 to 0.3 kilogram better weight gains per day than in the unshaded pens.
"We’re not necessarily seeing a reduction in feed consumption, but we’re seeing a better performance.”
The shed structure also affords Jalna the benefit of water harvest.
“Our water supply for the feedlot relies on three sources - dam water on non-permanent flowing creeks; water harvest off the shed; and our backup, town mains water,” David said.
“Mains water keeps us operational, but we try not to use it as it’s very expensive.”
Given the size of the shed, 25 millimetres of rain results in approximately 225,000 litres of water being captured, and ultimately put back into the feedlot.
“If you multiply that over the year, it equates to around about 4.5 megalitres of water per year, and that is effectively free water.”
Then there’s the value-adding opportunity from the straw they use as bedding.
“Every couple of weeks we’ll do a total cleanout of the shed and we’re using all that back as fertiliser on our cropping country,” David said.
“We get phenomenal results, particularly on canola where our yields have gone from an average of just under 2 tonnes to the hectare, this year we’re averaging just over 3.5t/ha and at $900/t.
“With the way fertiliser costs are heading, we’ve been able to cut our synthetic fertilisers by a third by using our natural fertilisers out of the feedlot and that’s a massive benefit to us.”
Using straw as bedding has also created an end use for the stubble from their cropping country, allowing them to move away from the practice of burning stubble.
“Environmentally, that’s a win-win for everyone if we can eliminate the necessity of having to burn stubbles.”
Benefits outweigh cost
Ultimately, while it’s a big investment, David said shade is a necessity.
“It will be a big investment in the future, but I think if we want to continue to operate as we do in this industry, we’ve got to be prepared to put investment into this sort of infrastructure,” he said.
“We see it as a benefit to us as a lot feeder, for animal welfare, and for the social license to operate a feedlot.
“It’s important that we continue to be proactive when it comes to animal welfare, and shade and shelter are certainly helping us progress in that area.
“Shade is going to be a necessity for the social license to keep operating going forward. There are benefits to traditional shade structures for the right pens and environment, and for us there will be bigger benefits of shelter structures like our shed.”
Want to know more about the benefits of shade, visit the ALFA Shade Hub: