Updating Old Barns to Fit Today’s Livestock

barn improvement

Today’s Holstein dairy cow won’t fit into yesterday’s stall.

Barns come in many shapes and sizes. Older barns are often used for a purpose other than their original intentions – such as old dairy barns housing beef cattle or swine. Animals have changed, with genetics focusing on increasing size and productivity. Herd size has increased, so more animals may be needed on the home farm to make the economics work.

Technology, too, has changed the way a barn is utilized. Ventilation becomes more important when animals are confined for longer periods of time. Automatic feeding systems, robotic milking systems or larger equipment moving through the barn require more space and different layouts. Manure management systems have evolved, flooring and bedding options abound, and advances in understanding animal comfort, circadian rhythms and animal behavior have altered housing recommendations.

“The basics of any animal housing include: excellent air quality; dry, comfortable resting areas; good access to feed; good access to drinking water; a confident footing; and protection from weather extremes,” Dan McFarland, agricultural engineer, Penn State Extension, said.

Housing impacts

Sometimes, making small improvements, that build upon one another can be a way of investing in the future. If your barn is in good condition, ventilation is adequate for herd and human health, and overcrowding isn’t a concern, redesigning stalls for better comfort or changing management needs may be the best option for a return on your investment. Animal comfort issues cause decreases in reproduction, increases in illness, poor gain and productivity losses.

However, “if remodeling is not practical, or doesn’t help the business move forward,” building new may be the best option, McFarland said. If remodeling an old facility will cost more than two-thirds of the cost of building new, “working around” issues may not be the best approach for profitability.

Facility issues that impact animal comfort and welfare include air quality, slippery floors, inadequate stalls or inadequate feeding space, McFarland said.

“Air laden with moisture, gases and other pollutants like dust, molds, and pathogens cause respiratory and health problems,” he said. “Clean, fresh, frost-free water should be available at all times. A secure, non-skid floor surface minimizes slips and falls that can cause injury.”

Cleanliness concerns, lameness issues, water quality or heat stress can be due to facility issues, poor management or both. Determining if the main problems for your herd are facility or management induced issues is the place to start assessing your need for a new facility.

“Study after study has shown that overcrowding affects animal behavior negatively. There is more aggression. Resting behavior is affected leading to more ‘idle’ standing that typically leads to increased lameness. Placing more animals in an area than the space was designed for usually results in poorer air quality, due to more moisture from respired air and urine, and increased gas levels from more manure and additional heat,” McFarland said.

Assessing options

McFarland recommends determining if you can justify new facilities by truthfully assessing which ongoing herd management concerns are actually rooted in your outdated facilities. Are old facilities causing herd health and productivity concerns? Is there a need that can’t be met by changes in management? Is your time and labor efficiency detrimentally impacted by facility design rather than management concerns? Could you do something differently in the old facilities that would vastly improve herd and human stress?

If new facilities are justified, are they feasible? Can you afford to build a new barn? A feasibility study focuses on the long-term financial performance of the business, and takes into consideration debt, financing, the cost of operating current facilities and the changes that would need to be made to other areas of the farm if new facilities are built. A “ripple effect,” impacting everything from manure handling, feeding management, crop and pasture access and even animal numbers, can occur with a new building, McFarland said.

cows in a barn
Image Courtesy Of 123ducu/istock

Will a new facility take away from land needed for grazing or crop production? Will expanding animal numbers or decreasing land mean new regulations, such as concentrated animal feeding operation rules, or a need for changes in your manure management plans? What about any construction permits needed?

What is the expected longevity of the farm? The ownership of the farm and the land is a consideration, as making facility improvements can impact the next generation – if there is one – in the long term. Although new facilities might appeal to buyers, if they aren’t designed for the latest technology or management practices – such as robotic milking or a bedded pack barn – they might not attract the buyers you’ll need to recoup your costs. Asking yourself if doing nothing, or even going out of business, is a better option than investing in new facilities often spurs serious discussions and soul-searching on the farm, McFarland said.

Read more: Dairy Barn Construction: It’s All in the Planning

Labor needs may change with new facilities, or may dictate the need of facility changes. If labor is becoming less available, due to aging, labor costs or availability of workers, a new facility can make better use of limited labor. New facilities can also attract workers and can improve lifestyles by decreasing drudgery, enhancing labor efficiency and automating daily tasks.

A cost analysis involves the tangible, as well as intangible, aspects associated with a new facility, or altering an existing one. Compare the cost of a new build that meets all your needs and see how close the existing facility can come with renovations, and what it will cost. Can new technology fit into old spaces, even with a remodel? Will major impediments still exist? What are they and what impact do they have on herd health and productivity? What lifestyle concerns will still exist with a remodel, and would a new build improve your day-to-day routine and enjoyment on the job?

Although “you can’t go to the bank with this,” improving your lifestyle through improved livestock barns does factor into the decision-making process. Increased income can enhance your life; decreasing drudgery through better barn design can make you happier on a daily basis.

Construction advice

McFarland shares his insights on various aspects to consider when improving your barn.

Feed: “Preferably space for all animals to eat at the same time, (make) feed available and within easy reach, (offer) enough time in the area for each animal to consume the adequate amount of feed throughout the day.”

Water: Make it conveniently located, with at least two access points, depending on group size and waterer design. In the dairy, no cow should be more than 50 feet from a watering unit; at least three inches of accessible perimeter per cow in a trough type waterer is needed.

Stalls: These need to be big enough for the largest animals to have access to them. This includes room to rise, recline and rest comfortably. Surfaces should provide cushion, be kept clean and dry and offer traction.

Maternity areas: Space should accommodate times of increased births. Adequate equipment and restraints should be available; areas should be well lit, and kept clean, dry and comfortable. These are not sick animal pens, and sick pens should be isolated from maternity areas.

New build

Herd health concerns carry a price – that of veterinary care and of lost productivity – and need to be factored in to any assessment. Any increase in debt load that building new may cause might be offset by productivity increases, enhanced animal well-being and decreased veterinary bills or cull rates that a new, well-planned facility can provide. Any time animal stress is decreased and comfort is increased, the herd benefits.

If a new build is justified, and it is feasible, deciding upon layout and design, construction materials, building options and assuring quality craftsmanship come next. Many companies specialize in agricultural buildings, including livestock barns that offer design services to customize your needs.

Bruce Jackson, Northeast sales representative for Lester Buildings, knows that meeting the needs of each individual farm, while supplying the highest quality structure, is imperative. The company designs barns for beef cattle, dairy cows, swine and horses.

“Lester Buildings provides a fully engineered structure with one of the best warranties ever. This means that the structure will meet all local and state codes, which gives added value to the property,” Jackson said. “The design options are endless with Lester buildings.”

cows outside a barn
Image Courtesy Of WoodyUpstate/istock

Barn building options need to include ventilation, flooring, electrical and water needs. Access for equipment, roof design and material selection can be customized for specific livestock needs. Design and layout concerns include adequate animal resting areas and alleyways plus readily accessible and uncrowded feeding areas.

“Our dealers will work with the customer to determine flooring needs as well as specific ventilation requirements. They will offer their expertise as to common requirements but can also alter construction for specialty equipment,” Jackson said. “Every structure brings its own electrical and water needs. These decisions will be addressed before a building is ever ordered for delivery so that the design will accommodate these needs. Electrical and water requirements can be included in the scope of work with the Lester dealer, or the building can be built with the customer’s own electrician and plumber finishing their parts.”

Read more: Barn Raising

Getting the options you need to improve your herd management and enhance animal comfort doesn’t automatically happen just because the new facility is bigger in square footage. Although this may reduce overcrowding, poor design in a larger building is still going to cause concerns for equipment, animals and laborers. Often, increasing the herd is part of the strategy to offset the cost of the new building, so factoring in future animal numbers and building large enough to meet this need is imperative.

“Overcrowding challenges animals in several ways. Just because they fit in the space doesn’t mean it will work,” McFarland said, and planning enough space – and designing it to meet the herd’s needs – requires forethought.

McFarland’s recommendations for designing new facilities include space for maternity pens, sick pens, adequate-sized stalls and accessible food and water areas that avoid the perils of overcrowding. Provide animal comfort, allow for expression of natural behaviors, and keep the barn’s overall environment – air and water quality, cleanliness and ease of cleaning and safety for humans and animals – in mind.

Deciding to build a new barn can change the outlook for you and your herd. Starting fresh means eliminating infrastructure concerns that impact day-to-day routines on the farm for you and your animals. Although new facilities can bring improvement just because they are better equipped to keep the herd healthy and comfortable, a new barn also offers the opportunity to change management practices and eliminate poor habits or implement new technology.

“Don’t repeat old mistakes,” McFarland said. “Most of the improvements made to animal facilities come from observation of animals in existing facilities.”

With a lot of different options out there, redesigning your current livestock barn or opting for a new build requires planning ahead to meet future, as well as current herd needs. Old facilities may be holding back your profit, costing you in lost gain, poor herd health, excessive labor needs and increased stress for farmer and animal alike.

Read more: The Right Plan, The Right Barn

The Right Plan, The Right Barn


What goes into the perfect building? Figuring out your needs plays a big part in solving that puzzle.

U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” Although his words were referencing military defense, Ike could have well been talking about barn construction. Whether you’re renovating or starting from scratch, having a solid plan is necessary.

Take your time

Before you start with the drafting pencil, take into consideration your most important and initial hurdle: time.

“The more time a farmer allots to planning and designing his new facility, the more efficient and economical that facility can be,” said Joe Hess, east region sales manager, EPS Buildings. “When a builder can schedule work and has time to negotiate pricing for his materials, the better price he can give so he is better able to pass some of that back to the farmer.”

Kathy Benoit, a livestock specialist with FarmTek, explained that farm owners should focus on changes and innovations that would make for a more efficient and profitable operation. If there’s an immediate facility issue, then there should be a plan to address it. If a barn is considered for renovation, then owners should address their future goals.

“For example, if they are looking to increase their herd size in the next two years through breeding, look to have construction complete as those newer animals are at breeding age, instead of calving age,” Benoit said. “This way, you can prepare for a few things. If building takes longer than expected, you still have time before expansion, and you are not trying to overcrowd the existing herd.”

Ample amount of time is also needed, she added, when it comes to new facility transitions. Having your staff and existing herd adjust properly – and doing this without new animals in the mix – can relieve stress within your operation.

Read more: Dairy barn construction: it’s all in the planning

Talk to your builder

Planning is one thing, but it doesn’t matter without the right execution and relies heavily on selecting the right builder. Owners should always consider experience and reliability when selecting one, Benoit said.

“There are many good builders out there, but not always ones with dairy experience,” she said. “Structures can be suggested that may not work with your situation, due to lack of experience on the builder’s side. This may not be apparent for years down the road, when you have finally hit a peak herd size.”

Hess added that reputation as well as knowledge should play a part in an owner’s decision-making.

“Will that builder be able to engineer the facility to provide a safe environment for both the animals and people that will enter?” he said. “Does that builder own enough equipment and have enough qualified [workers to] help to erect this structure in a timely fashion?”

Communication is key, Benoit noted, and a good builder will possess that trait, especially when you dive into designing specifics.

“All aspects of design flow into a single factor more than any others,” she said. “No matter what style of structure you are planning (freestall, tie stall or bedded pack), your builder should be able to help guide you to choosing a successful facility.”

Cow comfort, according to Benoit, is one of the biggest factors when farmers discuss their design plans. For instance, she recommends making sure aisles are sized properly for the breed you are working with. “Pertaining to cow flow – during movement to the parlor, appropriately sized aisles reduce stress to the cows and less slippage during travel,” Benoit said. “Appropriately sized feed aisles assure cows are undisturbed when eating and others are traveling behind.”

Owners should also take into consideration barn climate, she noted. To keep cows’ core temperature at a comfortable level, ventilation systems should be correctly sized.

Financial Considerations

Finances are always a factor for members of the dairy industry. Benoit recommended that owners research the programs available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) that will allow for extended payment plans or even matching grants in some states. Here’s a list of some examples.

Agricultural Management Assistance (AMA)

AMA helps agricultural producers use conservation to manage risk and solve natural resource issues through natural resources conservation. NRCS administers the AMA conservation provisions while the Agricultural Marketing Service and the Risk Management Agency implement other provisions under AMA.

For morehttp://goo.gl/VAH0GS

Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP)

CSP helps agricultural producers maintain and improve their existing conservation systems and adopt additional conservation activities to address priority resources concerns. Participants earn CSP payments for conservation performance—the higher the performance, the higher the payment.

For morehttp://goo.gl/GgfRv5

Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)

EQIP provides financial and technical assistance to agricultural producers in order to address natural resource concerns and deliver environmental benefits such as improved water and air quality, conserved ground and surface water, reduced soil erosion and sedimentation or improved or created wildlife habitat.

For morehttp://goo.gl/K9SreZ

Everyone makes mistakes

In planning, one of the other common missteps is when owners and operators undersize the structure.

“A new facility can increase herd production and cow comfort, which in turn will promote cows to live longer, more productive lives,” Benoit said. “Always try to give yourself a little extra space in the building – the cows will pay you back.”

On the flip side, you shouldn’t risk the danger of overdoing it with your future needs either.

“We have been asked many times to expand the barn even before its totally erected,” Hess said. “If that might be a consideration down the road, the building can be designed to be easily expanded without disturbing the original facility.”

Hess also recommended that owners choose a builder that applies top-grade methods or uses superior materials that will impact the design integrity of a building. Plus, when it comes to quality, cheaper isn’t always better. Often, better pricing can be the result of better planning.

“Once all of these items are on paper, the building should be engineered to adapt to take all of these factors into consideration,” he said. “Occasionally, it may not be possible to safely engineer some of these items into the plan and these issues must be addressed to overcome them and move forward with a safe building.”

Read more: Money-saving tips for pouring a new barn floor

Expect the unexpected

Most owners can provide a suitable assessment of their needs when planning for barn construction, however, despite our best attempts, no one is able to predict a certain future for their business.

“The best way to handle the unexpected is to give yourself some extra time between when the building is supposed to be done and when you need to start using it,” Benoit said. “With any project, communication is the No. 1 priority. When working with a builder, if changes happen to your plan, let them know as soon as possible.”

Great communication should be expected when dealing with a builder. With the advancements in messaging, schedule changes and construction shifts should be dealt with quickly.

“Communication is key to having a well-designed, safe finished product,” Hess said. “With cellphones now capable of providing instant answers through digital photography, emails and communication, there is no excuse for the builder, farmer or engineer not to know exactly what needs to be done and how.”

Read more: Design barns for today’s animals

Barn Raising

barn building in progress

Like buying farm equipment, when it comes to building a new barn or restoring an old one, farmers have to come to the table with deep pockets.

“The cost of building a barn today is the same as building a new house,” said Joe Heaney, owner of J.F. Heaney Barn Construction Co. of Waldoboro, Maine. “That’s why it is usually better to restore or repair a barn than to build a new one.”

According to Heaney, maintaining barns is the work of generations.

“Families can take on maintaining various parts of the barn over time,” he said. “These days, most of that interest seems to lie with the older generation.”

Part of that is because so many young people did not stay on the farm. He has seen more than a few older farmers taking on young people as partners who are interested in farming.

“As part of the exchange, they commit to passing the farm along to them, which makes maintaining farmsteads something they need to keep up on,” Heaney said.

North country building

Richard Prey owns Mud Lake Stalls of DePeyster, New York, a year-round restoration business that specializes in restoring old barns, building new barns and manufacturing free stalls, gates, wagons and feeders. Mud Lake’s territory extends throughout New York and Vermont.

“Mostly, we work on livestock housing, and that is mostly free stall barns, although we do tie-stalls as well.”

For a 110-foot by 500- to 600-foot free stall barn, construction costs come in at $2,000 per cow. Tie stalls cost “a little more.” Prey says weather is his biggest challenge and the price of milk comes in right after that. On the heels of the challenge of weather comes water and drainage.

dairy cows in a barn
The price of milk has a huge impact on construction decisions.Photo by urbancow/istockphoto.com 

“If you can’t direct water away from a barn, you can try using drain systems,” he said. “But when the ground freezes, that doesn’t work.”

Water is a big problem in older barns because so many were built on top of springs in order to have a convenient water supply. Heaney said he’s seen barns with bottom structures sitting in a foot of water. The best solution in his part of the Northeast is a sluiceway to direct water away from the stone. He filters it using landscape cloth and gravel and grades downhill to create a track away from the barn.

“If a spring is uphill of the barn, dig a trench on the water side to direct the water flow away from the barn,” Heaney said. “Direct it around the corner and out away.”

Dairy barns

When building dairy barns, cow comfort is job one. There are two facets: stall spacing and type of beds. Stall walls used to be placed 45 to 48 inches from the center. Now, Prey is building them 52 to 54 inches from the center.

With beds, the first question is whether a farm can handle sand. Farmers have to be able to get rid of sand without plugging up their manure systems.

The Ahlgrens cut a half-lap joint into this gun stock post they repaired in a huge old colonial barn. Wider on the top than on the bottom so that it can support beams above, the posts are susceptible to rot from the top down.
The Ahlgrens cut a half-lap joint into this gun stock post they repaired in a huge old colonial barn. Wider on the top than on the bottom so that it can support beams above, the posts are susceptible to rot from the top down. Photo by Ahlgren and Son Builders & Jesse Ahlgren.

If they can’t, the next choice is a concrete deck with memory foam and a rubber covering. Stalls are galvanized steel, which Prey said works better against the ammonia in barns.

Prey hasn’t seen a lot of manure flushing systems on New York and Vermont dairy barns.

“Part of the reason is that many of the barns in our region are older,” he said. “Flushing systems require barns be built with a slope and the older ones are built level.”

He also doesn’t see a lot of open-front housing due to the region’s winters.

“About 10 percent of the dairy farms up here have open-front housing,” he said. “But 95 percent are using curtain ventilation.”

Tunnel ventilation systems – long buildings with wall-mounted fans mounted on one end and doors and curtains on the other – are gaining in popularity. They provide good wind speed through the barn for better air flow and ventilation.

Prey doesn’t see many bank barns in his part of the country. Most of the structures are hip roof barns with tie stalls. The bulk of his company’s work is done in interiors, which consists of changing out tie stalls. Some of them require their side walls and roofs to be jacked up and leveled.

Any foundation work will be the most expensive work he does. If a side wall and a roof have to be knocked down, as well as an old wall, and a new one put in, the job will be very costly.

When doing this kind of work on bank barns, the walls are usually wider at the bottom than they are at the top. That’s because the original builders used large boulders on the bottom. Their removal adds considerably to the cost of the job.

Repairing wood gutters requires pressure-treated lumber, which, in the southeastern Pennsylvania market, will cost a little more than $11 for a 20-foot length. In the same market, a 20-foot length of galvanized steel gutters will cost $21.

“With proper care, restored wooden gutters will last for about 20 years,” Heaney said. “Galvanized steel gutters can last for 100 years.”

Josiah (right) and Steve Ahlgren stand next to a wall made of hemlock wood taken from an old barn. Steve re-sawed the wood, planed, sanded and used it to cover a wall in his home. According to Steve, the hemlock is easily 300 years old.
Josiah (right) and Steve Ahlgren stand next to a wall made of hemlock wood taken from an old barn. Steve re-sawed the wood, planed, sanded and used it to cover a wall in his home. According to Steve, the hemlock is easily 300 years old.

Another task common to barn repair is what Heaney calls “sill work,” replacing rotted window frames. He recommends using windows hinged at the bottom with chains on each side and a toggle on top. These windows lean in and can stay open in all kinds of weather.


One of the things the Northeast has more of than other regions of the country is old barns, which means the region also has a lot of barn restoration and conversion firms.

If they list conversion as a business, that means they rebuild barns into homes, offices and typically, non-farm storage facilities. Some of those who restore and repair barns are also in the conversion business. More than a few firms do historic preservation work and still others specialize in timber restoration.

All of these people are “barnwrights” and more than a few are artisans (see sidebar).

Steve Ahlgren of Sanborton, New Hampshire, and his son Josiah are “Yankee carpenters.” Ahlgren and Son Builders has been around for 45 years. They restore 200- and 150-year-old barns and recently restored Sanborton’s public library building.

“We build new post-and-beam barns, pole barns, doing major and minor repair work, we’ve built homes and done home repair…but barns are our favorite thing to do.”

According to Steve, his son has the gift of stone. “He has that touch for stone work and he got it from his grandfather.”

Rotted sections of beams need to severed as Josiah is doing here, then replaced with healthy wood. The beams rot in the center, then squirrels move in, further fouling the wood with their feces and urine. This is fairly common in older barns, with the culprits as likely to be rats as squirrels.
Rotted sections of beams need to severed as Josiah is doing here, then replaced with healthy wood. The beams rot in the center, then squirrels move in, further fouling the wood with their feces and urine. This is fairly common in older barns, with the culprits as likely to be rats as squirrels.

Steve is a “wood whisperer.” His gift is his feel for the wood. Like some of the world’s best jockeys and the horses they ride, he knows what his wood will do before he begins, what it will do well under his hands, and what it can be pushed to do before reaching its limits.

“I’m a pine guy,” he said. “It’s stronger than oak and it moves better because it doesn’t crack as much as oak will.”

Pine takes a lot of movement, which is why he uses pine and hemlock in frames. Hemlock is rot resistant and is harder than pine.

old barns, old tricks article

“It is a rugged wood and has a straight grain. While it can split and be splintery it is very heavy,” Ahlgren said. “It also chisels well.”

He prefers to work with green wood. It’s easier for peg placement and to drill than dried wood. “When wood is green, chisels run right through it, your pegs won’t split anything and when it dries, the beams twist and lock together.”

Ahlgren also likes old wood, when he can get it, because it’s stronger and lasts longer. According to Ann Nicklin, executive director of the Building Materials Reuse Association of Chicago, that’s because the growing and harvest cycle of trees used to be a lot longer, 60 to 75 years.

Old wood has a much tighter grain than new wood does.

“Older wood’s grain is like pin stripes, with the grain being less than one-quarter of an inch apart,” she said. “New growth is much wider.”

Wood with tight grains is harder and denser and responds better to finish than new wood with wider grain.

“It takes on a luster when finish is applied. Old growth pine and fir behaves much more like hardwoods,” Nicklin said.

“When we were doing the restoration on the Sanborton Town Library, the pine louvers in the steeple – which were 18 years old – were already rotted. But the 150-year-old pine in the railings was fine,” Ahlgren said.

As much as he loves wood, Ahlgren said he prefers metal roofs.

“The quality of asphalt is completely uncertain. When you roof with it, the life of the roof is barely 10 years. We used to use diamond shingles and I’ve seen them last for 75 years.”

Screw-down roofs have their problems, but they are hard to beat. They require a bit more maintenance. If the rust is removed and exposed metal is kept covered with paint, a metal roof will last much longer than asphalt.

The art of the barn

There is a certain kind of reverence in the tone of the voice of barnwrights when they talk about their work.

“Barns are cathedrals of wood,” Heaney said. “It’s why barn maintenance should be constant.”

“The skill of restoration work is to make it look like no one has done anything to the building. You go and see what’s there. Then you make it look like you haven’t been there,” Ahlgren said.

Curt Harler, who has a B.S. in agriculture from Penn State University and an M.S. in ag from Ohio State University, is a full-time freelance writer specializing in green topics.

Raised on a farm in Southeastern Pennsylvania, David Weinstock is a freelance journalist specializing in agriculture and animal sciences. He is a graduate of Penn State University.

Cover Photo by SWKrullImaging/istockphoto.com