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Building a barn: Determining the needs of your operation

Victoria Diegnan for Progressive Dairyman Published on 31 March 2016
Designing a building a new facility

You know you need to do some renovations, or you’re putting together the plans for an expansion project.

Maybe you’ve done some updating or made changes recently, but were you able to assess the functionality of your existing structures and equipment, and use that in planning your decisions?



Designing and building a barn can be a rushed process. For many, the need for a renovation or new facility is long overdue. It’s easy to find yourself in a “get it done” frame of mind once the decision is made to move forward on a project.

You may be inclined to build a barn just like your existing buildings because you know the specs and your builder knows what you need, so you say, “let’s just get it done.”

But each project is different, and the challenge comes in recognizing the areas that can be improved upon and being involved with that planning from the beginning. There are many decisions made at this planning stage, and they are critical to the barn’s overall functionality and the success of the animals residing there.

You may not consider the fact that your current barn was built 10 to 20 years ago. Put that into perspective: Twenty years ago, people didn’t carry cellphones, email was a cutting-edge communication technology, and less than 30 percent of homes in the U.S. owned a computer. It’s safe to say things have changed.

So when thinking about adding a new facility or doing renovations on a 10- to 20-year-old barn, why would you replicate the exact same thing? The dairy industry, too, has changed during that time.


Technologies have advanced; cost of production has increased; the average farm size is bigger; animals are larger and producing more milk. Your new project should be taking all of these things into consideration.

One of the first things to do is identify the type and size of animal that will be occupying the facility. This identifier will dictate many of the design features of your barn. That being said, it should be considered whether the growth plans of your business will require this facility to play a different role in the future.

If it is possible that the barn may be used differently down the road, be sure to figure that into your decision-making, as this could dictate the layout and the equipment you choose to install.

Assessing the current layout and functionality of your facilities is another important step. Walk through the barns to listen, look around and smell what’s going on. Spend some time going through them with the mindset of an observer and not an owner. Take notice on how the stalls are being used. Watch some cows get up and lie down.

Do the cows have to maneuver to clear a neck rail or avoid the cow in front of them? Are there many empty stalls? Are the stalls clean? Is manure collecting in the stalls and not falling into the alleyway? Look at your lockups or feed rail. Are there sections not being used because of broken equipment?

How does the air smell? This question of air quality is a very necessary one to ask, especially in the winter, as ventilation is more than keeping cows cool and isn’t just relevant in the summer months. It is extremely important that your barn has proper air exchange all year in order to maintain good air quality.


What type of bedding will you be using? Sand versus manure solids or a mattress system will play a role in the type of stalls you will need. Factor in the variables such as bedding when choosing your equipment, as corrosion will be an issue if you don’t install heavy galvanized stalls and fittings.

Spend some time to look at the movement of the cows from the stalls into the holding areas and then to the parlor. What efficiencies can be improved there? Do walkways need to be widened, or is the slope too steep?

Do more gates need to be added, or do some need to be replaced due to broken latches and hinges? It’s hard to see on a daily basis, but these things are costing extra time and money if not functioning efficiently.

In noting your findings, it may be that some things are not necessarily barn design flaws. The human element is key when assessing how the day-to-day tasks are managed. If you notice the air is stale and smells like ammonia, it may not be that the opening for your curtains isn’t big enough; it could be the curtain system may need to be automated if someone isn’t available to manually operate it as needed.

Part of the assessment process is to acknowledge how the facilities are managed so the proper equipment and automations can be installed.

It may seem like an additional step or a waste of time, but it isn’t. No facilities are perfect, and with ever-changing conditions and situations, there is always room for improvement. Extra attention during the planning process can help you to get a better handle on the needs for your business.

Once you’ve identified your goals and recognized the areas of improvement, you will be able to execute a well-laid-out plan and end up with a facility that will grow with your business and last through years of use.  PD

PHOTO: Designing and building a new facility can turn into a rushed process, but don’t forget to slow down to make sure your finished project will meet your needs, particularly when it comes to cow comfort and ventilation. Photo provided by Seneca Dairy Systems.

Victoria Diegnan is with Seneca Dairy Systems. Email Victoria Diegnan.