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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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