Avoid these 7 mistakes in barn design

When it comes to building free-stall barns, "we've learned a lot over the years. However, when visiting dairies, it's also evident that we still have a few things we can do better when it comes to cow comfort," says Dan McFarland, extension agricultural engineer, Penn State University.

There are five things you should never take away from a cow, says McFarland. In order to produce up to their potential cows need good air quality, a dry comfy resting place, good access to feed, good access to water, and confident footing. Unfortunately, when push comes to shove during construction, sacrifices often get made that impact the cow negatively.

Remember, you don't have to pay for the building tomorrow, says Brian Perkins, technical services specialist with Monsanto Dairy Business in Canandaigua, N.Y. You can amortize it out over a few years in order to help with cash flow. Otherwise, if you make too many sacrifices during construction, you could end up with a new barn that's "cow-unfriendly and will limit milk production 10 years from now," he says.

Sometimes, changes have to be made. Just be sure that any changes you make are based on what's best for the cows. After all, they pay the bills.

Listed below are seven of the most common mistakes still made in barn design. Use this guide to help you avoid making the same mistakes.

Mistake #1 Skimping on barn width.

Why it happens: If you reduce the footprint of the barn, you reduce the overall cost. The thought is that if you take 6 inches from here and 6 inches from there, it won't hurt anything, explains John Smith, extension dairy specialist at Kansas State University. However, by the time you get done stealing a few inches from each dimension, soon your 100-foot wide four-row free-stall barn becomes a 95-foot wide barn. That makes a big difference to your cows.

The goal: A four-row free-stall barn should be 100 feet wide. That's two 10-foot back alleys, two sets of head-to-head free-stalls at 16 feet apiece, two front alleys at a width of 14 feet apiece, and a center drive-through feed alley at 20 feet. Added up, you need a 100-foot wide barn.

When you start scrimping on those dimensions, you could end up driving over the feed put out for the cows because the feed alley is too narrow. Or, cows could hang out of the back of stalls, causing stall usage to go down. 

Mistake #2 Too short of sidewalls.

Why it happens: Reducing sidewall height is one way a contractor will tell you that he can help save you money. In addition, some contractors don't like to work on roofs with the recommended 4/12 pitch and will urge you to change the pitch in order to reduce cost further.

However, both of these changes will make it more difficult to ventilate your free-stall barn properly. 

The taller the sidewall, the more available space above the cows to let air in and out of the building. By moving more air, you can do a better job of removing dust, humidity and odors from the air to keep the cows comfortable. And, with a higher roof, the cows are that much further removed from the radiant heat that the roof gives off in the summertime. 

The goal: For sidewalls, the minimum recommended height is 12 feet. However, that is quickly moving to 14 feet, and in warmer climates sidewall heights of 16 feet are becoming common.

You also will need to ensure that the roof is built with the correct pitch and adequate ridge openings. Currently, the recommended pitch is 4/12 — 4 inches in rise for every 12 inches of barn width. For the ridge opening, you will need 3 inches of open space for every 10 feet of barn width.

Mistake #3 Not enough crossovers.

Why it happens: If you want to get a few more stalls in the barn, it's tempting to cut out a crossover or reduce crossover width.

However, doing that means cows will have fewer places to get water, and cows that use the stalls located away from the feed alley will have to walk farther in order to access feed. And, boss cows will have an easier time staking out a water tank in the summer and preventing others from using it, and even from getting to the feed bunk.

"I still walk into barns and see crossovers placed every 140 to 150 feet," says Perkins. "That's just not a good decision for the cows."

The goal: For every group of animals, you want three crossovers — one on each end of the pen (this prevents dead-end alleys) and one in the center of the group. Crossovers should be located every 100 feet at a minimum.

Researchers have found, as a general rule, that cows clean up the bunk space closest to the crossovers — 30 feet in each direction of the crossover to be precise. Therefore, placing crossovers closer together will lend cows greater access to the feed, and you'll have more of the bunk cleaned up.

Based on those observations, McFarland recommends the construction of crossovers every 60 to 80 feet. 

Crossovers must be 14 feet wide. That way, you have room for a 2-foot wide waterer, room for cows to stand and drink at the tank, plus room for two-way cow traffic behind the cows at the tank.

Research conducted by Kansas State University shows that the middle crossover is the most popular — 40 percent of the water consumed by cows in free-stalls comes from that location. To accommodate the cows and encourage intake, some producers have installed a 16-foot center crossover with water tanks on each side, (see picture on page 27) or installed a center island water tank that cows can access from both sides.

Mistake # 4 Don't settle for poor concrete work.

Why it happens: The lowest bid is not always the best bid for your cows. Before you select a contractor, ask for references and view the work they have completed on other dairy facilities. Go to facilities where the work was done recently, as well as facilities completed a few years ago, and examine the quality of finish and grooving.

The goal: Cows need confident footing that does not injure. That means grooved concrete floors, with grooves spaced 2 inches apart. Flooring in the cow areas should be flat, smooth and grooves cut at right angles. (Please see "Get a good groove" in the December 2002 issue of Dairy Herd Management.)

Eating surfaces should be as smooth as you can get.

Mistake # 5 Using a north-south orientation for your barn.

Why it happens: Many still believe that barn orientation doesn't make that much difference, or that sidewall curtains can block the sun from entering the barn without impeding air flow. However, research at Kansas State University shows that orienting your barn east-west is the better choice for cow comfort.

The goal: An east-west orientation allows you to take advantage of prevailing winds, reduce the amount of direct sunlight entering the barn, and minimize heat stress on the cows. All are good reasons to rethink this issue. (Please see "Orient your free-stall barn east/west" in the May 2001 issue of Dairy Herd Management.)

Mistake #6 Not matching your barn with your management plan.

Why it happens: Part of the decision of whether to build a four-row or a six-row barn must be based on how you manage your cows. If you build a six-row barn to maximize the number of cows you can put in an allocated space, but still plan to use headlocks for vaccinations, bST shots, AI and pregnancy checks, you're just asking for trouble. You won't be able to lock up all of the cows at once, and cows won't be able to use each of the narrower headlocks that people tend to select in that situation. With narrow headlocks — 24 inches on center — cows" bodies are wider than the headlock space and they tend to pie out, rendering some headlock spaces unusable.

The goal: If you want to build a six-row barn, you need to also build a palpation rail for cow-management activities and use a post-and-rail feeding system, says Smith. However, if you prefer to use headlocks to manage your cows, then build a four-row barn.

McFarland suggests using headlock that are 27 to 30 inches wide. You don't want cows to have to twist or tilt their heads to get in and out of the headlock.

Mistake # 7 Not matching manure-management system with bedding type.

Why it happens:  Sometimes people just don't think far enough ahead. You've got to remember, not all bedding types and manure-handling systems will work well in any barn. You must first design your barn for cow comfort — that includes your selection of bedding. Then, after those parameters have been set you should design a manure system that will work in that barn. This is especially true of sand bedding.

"Too many times," says Perkins, "I see somebody design a manure system that won't handle sand and then they build a cow-unfriendly barn because they made mistakes on their manure system."

The goal: Decide what type of bedding you will use, and what type of manure handling system you want before you ever pour any concrete.

While this list doesn't cover all of the mistakes made in free-stall barn construction, it does point out that taking the time to do it right is well worth your time. Spend more time thinking about the entire process — and how every change affects the cows — in order to come out with a completed product that meets or exceeds your goals.