Farming Magazine - December, 2009


The Wood Above Your Head

Building a better barn, making an old one better
By Kathleen Hatt

Siting is the most time-consuming element of barn design. At Dave Keith’s farm in North Haverhill, N.H., a former feeding area was blasted to make a flat area for the foundation of this heifer and dry cow barn. Designed in conjunction with Stan Weeks, this structure fits in well with the farmstead.

If you have a barn in need of modification or replacement, you may already have met John Porter, professor and dairy specialist, emeritus with the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension Service. Porter has been designing new barns and retrofitting old ones for over 35 years, beginning during his college years when he helped his father rework their Lebanon, N.H., dairy barn. Porter’s help is available to New Hampshire residents through UNH Extension and through a grant to UNH Extension from the Andrew C. and Margaret R. Sigler Foundation. He is also available to farmers outside New Hampshire through his company, Farm Planning Services LLC.


John Porter, University of New Hampshire Extension professor and dairy specialist, emeritus, retired from full-time extension work in June 2006 following a 32-year career. He is now available to farmers in New England through his company, Farm Planning Services LLC, and to farmers in New Hampshire through UNH Cooperative Extension.

The way things work together

Porter first looks at the way the farm flows: how buildings, people and animals work together (or not) on the site. He notes the orientation of the barn site, such as where the sun rises and sets, the direction of the prevailing winds, and where water flows. Because there are not a lot of good building sites on hilly, rocky New England farms—and because, historically, barns were built on the worst land to keep good land for crops and animals—proper siting is one of the more time-consuming parts of barn design or redesign work, says Porter. Newer, larger equipment requires more level land, and the size and access for equipment to deliver feed, scrape manure, etc., must also be considered in barn design.


After he walks around to see the lay of the land and how the components of the farm work, Porter listens to the farmer’s ideas. Some may not want to work in a cold barn; some may want to work primarily with a tractor, eschewing other mechanical devices such as conveyors and scrapers. He also finds out what the future plans are for the farm, and what the farm’s next use might be. What would happen if the farm had to be sold? Will the next owner want a barn attached to the end of an antique cape?

An important consideration in all barn designs is what Porter terms “cow flow.” Animals, as well as equipment, feed, manure and people, must move in unobstructed straight lines. Thus, an ell across the end of an existing structure is not a good option.


Jenny and Andy Tappers’ goat barn at their Via Lactea Farm in Brookfield, N.H., was designed by John Porter and built by Andy Tapper. The sunlit structure includes stalls for goats in various stages— milking, dry or doelings to be bred. Hay is stored overhead and pulled down into a feed alley. Diagonal bars keep the goats from pulling hay back from the feed alley and reduce waste. A beddedpack builds and heats over winter and is scooped out in the spring.

Integrating components

While bearing in mind the elements of the site (orientation, sunlight, wind and water), Porter next considers how to integrate the various components within the structure: how water drains off roofs and away from buildings; what animals need; whether the barn will be designed primarily for the comfort of people or animals; whether the barn will be closed up in winter and ventilated in summer; or, whether it be a “cold barn,” south facing, but open year-round with optional protection provided by sidewall curtains. He also considers what happens where people, equipment and animals intersect, as well as how the manure will be removed and where it will be stored relative to the animals. Are there environmental concerns?

Barns designed by Porter include feed access alleys separate from the animals. In smaller facilities, he also likes to include person access alleys so people can check animals without mingling with them.

While designing and integrating components of a barn and a farm, Porter designs for flexibility. Stalls generally separating animals in different age groups are designed so they can be resized if the farm’s needs change. Consideration is also given for future uses and future barn expansion—even though many farmers believe that their establishment will never change or get bigger. Open bedded-pack barns are sized so they can be fitted with stalls later if needed.

A firm foundation

Porter emphasizes the importance of beginning with a good base. A good base should be a raised pad so water will run away from the structure. He suggests removing topsoil and adding a gravel base larger than the intended building to encourage the water to flow away from the barn. Access roads, drainage systems and conduits for underground electrical wiring and plumbing should also be in place before barn construction begins.

Creative options

The use of 2x4 or 2x6 framing material attached to a floor deck built on a concrete wall, termed “stick built,” has been the usual barn construction method since the 1950s. Upper and lower plates fasten the studs to the floor and ceiling.


A three-sided barn at Dave and Jody Horans’ Northeast Corner Farm in East Thetford, Vt., includes people and feed access alleys, easily reconfigured stalls and a heated tractor garage/workshop. The barn, housing polled Herefords, is on a newly leveled site closer to the house than the old barn. It replaces a traditional 1800s dairy barn lost to fire. John Porter helped plan the facility.

A simplified method of building this design is the open-front, high-sided building known as a pole barn. Easy to build because little concrete needs to be poured, posts sit in the ground or on supports, and are spaced 8 to 12 feet apart. A top plate bears the weight of the roof structure. Native lumber, attached to horizontal nailing girts, can be used for vertical siding. In most situations, Porter recommends against building a second floor since it requires structural support and introduces the possibility of cave-in in case of fire. For hay and bedding storage, additional bays are a safer choice.

A less permanent barn may be useful in certain situations. Built on pipe supports, wooden sidewalls or concrete foundations, hoop barns also have the advantage of letting in solar radiation. They can also be disassembled and moved when they are no longer needed. Disadvantages include eventual deterioration of the roof fabric and the potential for animals to chew the covering.

One solution to the need for more space that Porter does not recommend is a lean-to. This add-on may create drainage and snow problems where the roof meets the existing structure. In addition, the reduced height will make it harder to drive through and thus create access problems.

Whether a barn is designed for dairy or beef cows, dairy or meat goats, horses or other livestock, most important, says Porter, is flexibility and a consideration of possible future uses.

Kathleen Hatt is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor. She resides in Henniker, N.H.