If your plan is to raise healthy livestock, that classic bank barn might not be the selling point your real estate agent makes it out to be. In fact, a lot of old stone barns should be viewed like old two-man cross-cut saws: interesting, even pretty to see, but way out of date when it comes to getting the job done.

Like many other regions of the Northeast, southeastern Pennsylvania’s culture and landscape hearkens back to colonial America. Its farms share the look with a special structural heritage standard to older farmsteads: it’s called the “bank barn.”

Ground floors feature stone walls on three sides, wooden fronts, second stories and topped with cupolas. Rear stone walls are constructed against an earthen bank that functions as insulation for the ground floor as well as ramps to second stories, which houses hay mows and other storage areas.

Great for storing and feeding hay, the bank barn is at once a boon and a curse. In the 1970s, the late Dr. Sam Gus, professor and Penn State University Extension veterinarian, used to say, “The bank barn in Pennsylvania has set animal health back by 100 years.”

It is a view still shared by many and not limited to those in the Keystone State.

“They were designed to keep the heat inside by minimizing ventilation,” said David W. Kammel, a University of Wisconsin-Madison Extension livestock specialist. “Animals were smaller then, so it was a design that made sense.”

Putting today’s larger livestock into them does not work unless something can be done to significantly increase year-round airflow.

“The restricted air flow causes humidity to rise and fuel costs to go up as farmers make efforts to control it,” Kammel said.

That is why dairy producers like Jimmy Harris of Perkasie, Pennsylvania looked to something more modern and cow-friendly when designing a barn that would be easy on the cows and easy on the farmer.

Harris wanted something with good ventilation and hoof- and leg-friendly floors.

In old-style bank barns, ceilings were low, which was also because of the era’s stock size.

“You can’t get a skid-steer into them for cleaning, which means it must be done manually,” he said. “And with families, even farm families, being as small as they are, they often don’t have the labor to stay up on it.”

According to Joe Heany, owner of J.F. Heany Co. Barn Restorations of Waldoboro, Maine, water lines are underground because the barns tended to be built on top of the springs that serve as their water supplies. “I’ve seen a lot of barns with bottom structures sitting in a foot of water.”

When the indoor temperature reaches 50 degrees, one of the seven fans mounted on the back of Jimmy Harris’s milk house turns on to draw the temperature back down to 40 degrees. In the summer, Harris opens a pair of garage doors at the front of the structure to create a cross-breeze.

Another problem is that over time, gaps between the bank and the rear foundation wall can get wide enough that water will collect there.

“In the winter, it freezes and contracts,” said Heaney, who has been restoring barns for 18 years. “Then, in the spring, it thaws and expands and creates all kinds of problems with the foundation and the bank.”

For these reasons, as wells as skyrocketing costs of new barn construction, southeastern Pennsylvania dairy farmers have been quietly going about a revolution in how they house their heifers and calves in the last few years. They have been moving their stock out of bank barns and into open-front housing with curtain ventilation.

This kind of housing is almost commonplace in other parts of the country. However, the trend away from housing livestock in bank barns came slower to the Northeast, owing to the age of farmsteads in the region.

Start small

Harris took over the Bucks County family farm from his parents in 2010. He farms 350 acres of which he owns 70, raising corn and hay to feed his 55-cow milking string and 65 young stock.

His rolling herd average is 29,000 pounds, 4 percent butterfat and 3.2 percent protein.

He feeds a total mix ration of roasted soybeans, high-moisture shelled corn, corn silage, cottonseed and a milk protein supplement. The cows also get alfalfa balage and triticale, which he uses as a no-till cover crop behind the corn he harvests for silage.

“My soils are very wet (the East Branch of the Perkiomen Creek runs through part of his property), so I can only grow alfalfa on the hillsides,” he said.

Harris houses his heifers and young stock in modified, open-front housing he customized from standing pole barns. His milk cows stand in a tunnel-ventilated, pole barn with a pair of garage doors and curtain walls on one end and 10 large, wall-mounted fans.

All his cattle stand on concrete flooring covered with wood shavings he collects each night from a nearby furniture factory.

“I leave a wagon there and they fill it with their vacuums. Then I go up to collect it each night,” he said.

Calves and heifers

Harris houses his calves in a curtain-ventilated pole barn once used to house horses. He cut the bottom third of the northwest wall of the building out and installed curtains.

Inside the building, he placed a divider in the middle of each stall to create one calf pen on either side. Then he installed steel gates on either end of the pens, one immediately behind a curtain.

When the weather is reasonable and the sun is out, Harris opens the curtains and lets the calves out into the lot. In inclement weather, the calves come back inside and the curtains are drawn.

The pens are clean, dry and sunny. There are no drafts in his calf house.

“I can’t give you a mortality percentage, but if they are born alive, can get colostrum, and can get up, then I don’t lose them,” he said.

He doesn’t wean calves before eight weeks.

“We feed our calves three times a day in the winter and twice a day the rest of the year,” he said. ‘They get a pelleted calf starter, which helps to keep the birds away.”

Kammel says this kind of housing is a system that is a simple shelter.

Photo by JoLin/istockphoto.com 

“You use the curtains to protect livestock from drafts,” he said. “It is simpler to pull them up than to remove steel in the summer.”

It keeps them out of the rain and snow, too. In the Midwest, where snow and wind blow as long and as loud as it can, this kind of housing is common for calves and heifers.

The old barn on Harris’ farm burned down in 1982. Actually, the bad news of the fire turned out to be good news for the farm and for the animals there. The old barn was rebuilt with a pole barn on the foundation. “It isn’t the classic, Virginia-style open front housing people are used to thinking about,” he said.

Harris said he pulled the sides off and put curtains in as well as skylights. He feeds his heifers all the grass hay they can eat and a pelleted 20 percent protein ration.

Temperatures in southeastern Pennsylvania hardly broke into double digits in the first three weeks of February.

“We were pretty well closed down,” Harris said. “It was so cold, we were having a little trouble keeping ice out of the water cups.”

Draft-free is key

When the outdoor temperatures shot up to a nearly tropical 35 degrees Fahrenheit, the curtains went up, the gates opened and the calves went out into the lot briefly for some morning sun. When the day grew chill, the calves went back inside.

“Cows like the cold as long as it comes with a 6- to 8-mile per hour air flow,” Harris said.

While that may be a bit of an overstatement, it is not altogether untrue.

“Cattle can be comfortable indoors as long as the temperature is five to 10 degrees warmer than it is outside,” Kammel said.

Harris agrees. “Being draft-free is key,” he said. “They don’t struggle in the cold as long as they are dry and draft-free.”

When indoor temperatures rise, so, too, does humidity, and if left uncontrolled, respiratory disease is sure to follow.

When temperatures rise, Kammel said, keep an eye on the building’s cold steel. “If you see that, it is time to get some ventilation to provide some air exchange.”

Cover and Photos by David Weinstock unless otherwise mentioned