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1108 PD: Finnish dairy architect thinks outside the barn

Published on 24 July 2008

Even at 11 years old, Jouni Pitkaranta of Seinajoki, Finland, knew he wanted to be involved with agricultural architecture.

“I did my first cow barn drawing, and I could say that even from that moment, I thought this is my future,” he recalls.

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Today, 36-year-old Jouni (pronounced yo-nee) has planned the construction of more than 300 dairy barns. His unique feedbunk/feed delivery system intrigues many dairymen and consultants. He believes this system saves labor, increases biosecurity and simplifies overall dairy design.

How it works
Jouni’s idea for an exterior feeding system began because of an architectural competition in Finland in 1998. He wanted to figure out a way to eliminate the need to drive a total mixed ration (TMR) wagon into the barn. After receiving positive feedback from the competition judges and assistance from his father-in-law, Aarne Pollari, Jouni built upon his original idea. By 2000, Jouni and Aarne had constructed the first barn with an exterior feeding system. After a few more barns were built, Jouni says many other producers became interested.

In his current system, the TMR is delivered into an acid-protected steel bunk that is built on the outside of the barn. The wall above the bunk is constructed from polycarbonate sheets and has two positions. During feeding, the wall turns in toward the cows, leaving cows minimally exposed to outside air. Jouni says producers are able to prevent cold air from going into the barn during wintertime. When not in the feeding position, the wall is closed, leaving any uneaten feed protected from weather and pests. Yet cows still have access to the feed while the wall is closed.

Jouni is currently working to improve his original plans. He said in his new, simpler design, the frames of the turning wall will also be made of galvanized steel, making it both stronger and more durable. The wall will also be able to turn “out” in order to allow the cows access to more air during warm weather conditions.

“The improved version is not yet on the market,” says Jouni. “I’m seeking companies right now which would be interested to manufacture and sell it.”

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The present system costs about $144 per foot plus the stainless steel bunk, which costs about $140. Jouni says the goal for the cost for the new system would be between $72 and $87 per foot.

Where in the world?
This system is currently being used on about 80 farms in Finland, and two farms in Sweden plan to implement the system in the next year. Jouni is especially excited about a recent project, where he helped to design the first exterior feeding system barn in Denmark for a 280-cow operation with four robotic milkers. Jouni is also helping to design Denmark’s second system with his cooperative Swedish-Danish design company, Agrinova.

Jouni has also worked with Five-G (www.fiveg.com) from Texas on about 10 projects in Finland, some of which have utilized his system.

“Jouni is looking at moving forward and better ways to do things,” says Ted Gribble, an engineer at Five-G. “And that’s why he brought us in. He was progressive enough that he thought it was worth it to bring in some other people to help.”

The pros and cons
Jouni considers his design to be an alternative to “a wide drive-in feed alley.” A great advantage to Jouni’s system is that vehicles do not have to enter the barn, which helps to protect the cows’ environment.

However, Gribble recognizes that a main concern among producers may be the difficulty of cleaning extra feed out of the exterior system’s “J-shaped” bunk, which would be much more difficult than cleaning a traditional feedbunk.

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“In this system, you’re relying on the cows to eat everything,” he says. “It’s a herd management thing … just a matter of whether or not you want your cows eating all of their feed.”

Jouni agrees and says many producers question him about feed refusal in the bunk because they think that without feed refusal, cows are hungry and therefore “not using all their potential.”

In Finland, Jouni says a farm with the exterior feeding system decided to conduct a trial to test the feed refusal claim. The producers supplied more feed than they normally would so that the cows would refuse a small percentage, but these producers discovered that the additional feed did not increase milk production. Jouni says at least two other producers have noticed that milk production actually decreases if they try to feed more TMR than what cows would normally eat in a day. Jouni is quick to recognize that “real scientific research” regarding feed refusal would be needed to ease producers’ concerns.

Although Jouni believes his system in a new facility might help contribute to increased milk production, the system itself does not affect production.

The real advantage, Jouni says, is that this system is easier on both farm workers and cows. Because the system requires no feed push-up or cleaning, it saves both labor time and feeding costs. In addition, cows have easier access to the feed and don’t have to strain to reach it. He believes that with the right size bunk, a feed neck rail might not be needed at all. He does suggest putting up a rope in order to prevent cows from getting into the feedbunk.

Jouni believes biosecurity is also increased because the feed will only be kept in the bunk, significantly decreasing the risk of contaminating the feed. However, he recognizes that the traditional feed alleys also served as walkways for visitors and farm workers. A disadvantage to his system is that visitors may have no other place to view cows than from a manure alley. In order to be able to offer a “sightseeing place,” Jouni recommends producers leave space for the construction of an observation deck.

In the case of barn size, bigger isn’t always better, says Gribble. Another benefit of Jouni’s system is that it allows producers to build their barns smaller than a traditional barn, saving on building materials, land use and energy costs to heat the building.

“It does eliminate some square footage of building,” Gribble says. “And in that cold climate [of Finland], that’s real helpful. The amount of heat generated by the cows is confined to a smaller space.”

Future plans
Jouni hopes to soon be able to bring his ideas to North America and has received positive feedback from producers in Ontario, Canada, where he has visited numerous times. As for the U.S., Jouni’s system may take a while to catch on.

“It’s just a matter of waiting for some farmers who are ready to try something new,” Gribble says. “It takes a little bit different thinking in how you’re managing everything.”

Jouni feels his new design is stronger and suitable for larger operations in the U.S. and believes his system gives “very interesting layout possibilities.” He says barns could be built like train cars, with a connection alley (or transfer line) to replace where a feed alley normally would be. Every barn’s feed wall would be able to open separately, and only a small gap would be left between each barn. (See figure for more details.) Because the transfer line is located outside the barn instead of in the middle, Jouni says the system would limit “crossings with feed and animal traffic.”

When speaking with Jouni, one can tell he has a passion for providing cows with a comfortable environment. His online introduction to his background summarizes why he loves designing “cow homes”:

“We owe cows a well-being. She gives us milk and meat, she has a tongue which you can feel and she has kind eyes which you can’t resist. So, it is a privilege to plan homes to cows.” PD

For more information, visit http://www.cowhomes.com

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