Building a new dairy barn is big in every way, including the structure itself, the investment, the amount of time it can take and the headache of overseeing such a giant project. Avoiding oversized problems can just be a matter of planning – knowing the right questions to ask, carefully choosing a builder, and communicating with the builder throughout the project.
The first considerations on such a project are the most obvious: how big, and where? The size of the barn is crucial, of course, based on the number of cows in the operation. When deciding on the location for the barn and how it will be oriented, think about access to driveways and roads, access to utilities, how the terrain will impact site preparation costs and ventilation, and potential for future growth.
Getting started on the permitting process early is critical, as government agencies can have backlogs, and delays can easily mount if the proper paperwork isn’t filed in time. Though each state, county and town has different requirements, they typically include plans for stormwater management, erosion control, manure management and nutrient management, as well as zoning limitations. It can often take up to a year before everything is in order.
Figuring out the cost of construction poses the classic chicken-and-egg conundrum, says Dean Hoover of King Construction in New Holland, Pa. You need to know how much a barn will cost before you start talking seriously with a banker about financing, but the builder needs to know the scope and details of the project before estimating the cost.
Hoover says, “We can offer some rough ideas of cost per square foot, but it’s best if a farmer has considered what they’re really able to afford and has financing lined up before they begin working on detailed plans for a new barn.” It’s also a good idea to check with local Natural Resources Conservation Service and university extension offices, as well as utility companies, to learn about grant and loan programs that might be available for your project.
While the cost of some elements of construction can be roughly figured out, such as building materials or plumbing and electrical systems, a great deal of the expense of a new barn lies in unknowns such as site preparation, and in detail work and quality of construction. Without having all of that information, it’s impossible to accurately compare two or more bids from different builders, since each may fill in those blanks very differently.
Thinking about cow flow during the design process is important. Take into consideration how many animals the farm has and how much that number might grow. This double- 12 parlor was built for Brook Corner Farm, a 280-cow farm in Lebanon, Pa.
Hoover suggests that you start the process by interviewing several builders. Ask to see the barns they have built that are comparable to the project under consideration, and for an opportunity to talk to the farmers they’ve worked with in the past. Also, ask the builders if they have their own crews or will work with subcontractors; if they have their own draftspeople; and how complaints, change orders and billing are handled. Find out if the builder has experience doing turnkey projects, where all of the subcontractors for plumbing, electrical, site work and other elements are under a single contract, or if you’ll need to serve as a general contractor.
Based on what you learn, choose two or three builders whose work you’re impressed with, and whom you feel you can trust, and ask for bids. Unless detailed prints are made for the project, builders will differ in the specifications that are included. Take these differences into consideration or pay to have detailed prints made. Some builders will provide these for a fee, or you can find an independent draftsperson to draw the initial plans. Either way, be prepared to spend about $3,000 to $8,000 for these initial detailed drawings and prints.
Once you’ve chosen a builder, the formal design process can begin. During this period you’ll have to make many decisions. This is the time to settle on a manure system and a bedding system, and whether manure will be moved with an alley scraper or a skid steer. Think carefully about cow flow – consider areas for sorting and treating, as well as the number of animals that will be milked at one time and how that impacts the size of the holding area. This is when to choose between a six-row or four-row freestall barn, and between a traditional milking parlor or a robotic system.
Major equipment decisions also need to be made during the design process, such as the use of headlocks for animal management, curtains for climate control and watering systems.
The overall cost of building such a big structure can be daunting, Hoover says, and farmers are often tempted to cut costs. He works with them to bring expenses in line with their budgets. However, he encourages them not to cut costs on items that relate to cow comfort, since those decisions can lead to decreased production and poor animal health, ultimately costing more money later on.
For example, many farmers resist installing an automated system that controls the climate of the barn by monitoring conditions and automatically adjusting curtains, fans and sprinklers, but his customers who have invested in the unit later reported that it was the best decision they made in their new barn.
Dairyman Lynn Royer, who had a new barn built eight years ago in Elizabethtown, Pa., echoes Hoover’s advice. “Don’t be too frugal,” he says. “I’m a pretty conservative guy, so this was a real stretch for me. We were going to skip alley scrapers, headlocks and rubber matting, but we ended up putting them all in.” His cows’ production increased by 10 to 12 pounds per day after moving into the new barn, which he says is at least in part because he didn’t skimp on animal comfort.
Royer also spent a bit more on the milking parlor than he had planned, but he’s glad that he did. “When you see how many hours a day it runs, and how hard you’re going to use it, you can see that it’s worth it.” He says it’s important to include the people who will be doing the actual milking in the process of designing the parlor, since they will think of details and concerns that will make the transition easier. “Cows learn a lot faster than people,” he adds.
You should also consider the smaller spaces in the barn during the planning process, such as space for utilities and equipment storage, as well as for people – office space, conference rooms, lunchrooms, bathrooms and visitors’ rooms or observation areas. Everything from lights and switches to spigots and drains has to be reflected on these drawings.
The design process is also when decisions are made about the materials that will be used – for instance, block or stud walls in the milking parlor, as well as other finishing details. Cost plays a significant role in some of these choices, says Hoover. “A lot of the time it’s a trade-off between cost and longevity or aesthetics. Farmer preferences come into play, and builders have preferences too.”
Hoover says it’s important to think through all of the various options, and to talk to other farmers as well as builders. Some builders, such as Hoover, have dairying experience. However, having helped many farmers with a range of preferences design buildings, Hoover has a good perspective on what the options are and what works well for different farms and management styles.
No matter how much experience a farmer may have with dairying, or even with construction, there are always elements about the design and construction process that can be a surprise. When Royer had his barn built, he was struck by how important concrete was in the process.
“The majority of the craftsmanship was in the concrete work,” he explains. “Making it not too rough but not too smooth, making sure that steps were the right height and drained properly, these are all my pet peeves.” He says that most people overwork the concrete, but having concrete workers who understood the needs of a dairy made all the difference on his project.
Once all of these decisions have been made, the final drawings are completed, and the permits are in place, construction can begin. The first step is often a meeting of everyone involved with the project to review the detailed print and discuss the process and the timing. This kind of communication is critical to making sure that everything comes together well, says Hoover. “The more you have everyone talking up front, the smoother the process will be,” he says. Those kinds of meetings should happen weekly throughout the process to ensure that everything stays on track, and so that everyone knows what the others are doing and expecting.
By the time construction begins, most likely you’ll have worked with the builder for several months and developed enough of a relationship that you won’t feel the need to be on-site at all times. “There’s no need to micromanage. Every builder is going to do things well, the way they know how, and once farmers choose their builder they have to let the builder do things their way,” says Hoover.
“Where farmers do need to be involved is making sure that the things they will be interacting with every day work the way they want them to,” he adds. This includes things like which way a gate swings on its hinges, where the controls are for curtains, how high a curb is, or where a wash hose will go.
At some point in the process, you’ll want a projected completion date, and Hoover says the builder should be able to give an accurate answer. At the same time, he adds, you need to understand that situations can arise that the builder can’t foresee or control, and be prepared in case a delay is necessary. “There’s always going to be something unexpected that arises,” he says, but if you and the builder have worked well together through the process, clearing up any problems shouldn’t be too overwhelming.
From breaking ground to moving cows into the barn, completion can take up to nine months, depending upon the size of the project.
“We’ve found that the farmers who are happiest with their new barns are the ones who have done the most thinking and planning beforehand,” says Hoover. Royer, who calls his barn the result of “20 years of dreams and three years of planning,” agrees.