Updating Old Barns to Fit Today’s Livestock

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