IT is that time of year again when dealing with livestock through the winter is at the forefront of all farmers minds.

With bad weather an almost constant feature throughout the winter months these days, it's an issue that can be challenging at the best of times, and one that can test even the most vigilant of farmers. For the Hamilton family at Aikengall at Innerwick near Dunbar though, this winter signals change - and hopefully an easier time to come - as they welcome an impressive new stock shed to the steading at their East Lothian set up. John Hamilton farms Aikengall alongside his three sons, James, Charles and Harry run 380 suckler cows and their followers through to finishing, alongside a 2000-head sheep flock. "We've always had a bit of an efficiency issue" John explains, "feeding cattle in the winter time was something that took us hours and it was becoming a problem when my sons are wanting to increase numbers and will have more stock to feed." "We've known for a long time that a new shed would be the ideal solution, but with things how they are in the current climate, it wasn't something we could rush into, and it was something that we had to make sure we planned and executed properly, to our highest advantage. It's really taken James, Charles and Harry two years seriously thinking about the situation, and planning it, for the project to come to fruition." This year was the year though, and making use of the annual investment allowance this year of £500,000 that means most of the project can be written off against the tax, construction started on the 1st of May on their brand new cattle shed. Fabricated under the expertise of Ve-Tech - for all the concreting - and William Smith Engineering - a company based at Stewarton in Ayrshire, that specialise in the fabrication of steel structures, the project has been constructed without the help of government grants. It has a capacity for 660-head of cattle, and on the 12 of November, the first cattle were housed "The shed can house 300 cows, and about 360 six month old calves" John tells us, "it's also has the capacity for 18 stock bulls in a specially designed cubicle system, that means the bulls can be penned in threes, or easily and safely moved around and penned individually." Health and safety was a massive consideration in the design and construction of the project, and one eye was always kept on how efficient the building could be. Spanning 300 feet by 70 feet, with specially tailored features that should streamline its day to day use. "We used to out winter some cattle, which had cross compliance issues and we also had cattle in rented sheds as well as straw bedded courts, we wanted to centralise everything, and this shed does exactly that. Everything is in one place, and is adjacent to the silage and crimped barley pits" explains John, "this shed means that feeding the cattle takes a fraction of the time that it would have done in the past!" In the new set up, the cattle are fed with a TMR every third day, which takes two hours, and it will only take half an hour on the days in between to push the feed in and check the stock, with labour averaging overall an hour a day. "It's already seen us make huge savings in labour terms" admits John, "at the end of the day it was built out of necessity, and it's already proving to be worth it. The way we were working before was inefficient and at times ineffective because of that. This makes a world of difference." One technical aspect of the shed is the water system that constantly keeps the cattle in water. A nipple feeding system is in place, which means that there is a continuous flow of water through the shed that the cattle can access at all time, something that was very important for John. "We never want the cattle to have access to dirty water in order to improve health and welfare" he explains, "so this way that will never be an issue. The water will always be flowing clean, and will be freely available. The fact its flowing should also help in the coldest months when the last thing you want, or need, is a frozen watering system!" The cattle will all also be on slat mats, to keep them clean, and improve comfort for the cattle "At the end of the day, out of all the money you spend on a slatted shed, I think the matting is one of the most important aspects", Willie Smith, of William Smith Engineering, tells us, "they remove stress for the cattle, and there's no point in building new sheds if livestock comfort isn't at the forefront of your mind." "The cost of straw was also one of the major deciding factors" admits John, "what we were spending on straw was getting well out of hand. Although we are next door to arable farmers , the cost of buying the straw, baling, carting, storing, bedding, mucking out and eventually spreading was enormous, the annual repayments on the loan for the shed will be a lot less than what the straw cost was. Furthermore the arable farmers are being advised by their agronomists not to sell their straw and chop it back into the ground, hence they don't really want to sell the straw." The new set up should also mean that the slurry collected under the slats will be able to be spread at the most efficient time in the spring. "There is a 'bubbler system' in place" explains John, "which is on a timer switch and blows air through the slurry ,which keeps it well mixed and ready for spreading and more importantly reduces the issue of poisonous gasses." "The slurry tank is 70 feet wide, by 250 feet, and 10 feet deep, it has a capacity for 1.1million gallons - or a whole year's supply, in other words." It's clear that the contractors involved are equally as proud of the project as the Hamilton's are. "Because we're based in Ayrshire, the vast majority of our projects are on dairy units, so this being a beef concern was a wee bit different for us" Willie tells us, "it's been quite a technical project, but it just goes to show that the expertise needed in one area does translate successfully across the board." The link to dairying is one confirmed by John: "To be perfectly honest, we definitely drew on ideas from dairy sheds when we were thinking about this project. The dairy boys have been ahead of us when it comes to sheds and buildings, so it was the obvious place to look and get concepts from." Attention to detail in the project is one thing that both the Hamilton's and Willie couldn't be happier with, with Willie saying, "I would like to think that the attention to detail on the project has really been second to none. It's what we pride ourselves on generally, but I think in this case it has really shone through. I would suggest that there isn't much in the UK to beat this project just now. It's been a bit of a ground breaker, and - although we're not ones for blowing or own trumpets - we are proud of that" He also can't praise the work of Malcolm Noble and Alastair Ireland enough, Vetech employees who have seen the project through from the start and have been instrumental in the shed's construction. John wholeheartedly backs up this view. "Their workmanship is first class he tells the SF, "everyone on the project has done an incredible job, and you have to give credit where credit is due. Only three men worked on the project all summer and their professionalism and skill level has been second to none. You can see that by just looking at the shed." It's certainly clear that the utmost level of effort has gone into the project from all concerned, and that it wasn't a venture that was undertaken lightly. "To be honest, it was something that we didn't have a lot of choice in" concludes John, "it was something that we had to build out of necessity, and fingers crossed both ourselves and our stock can reap some reward from it!"