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.

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.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.

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.

Barnwrights

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.

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.

“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