Construction: Barn entrances

by Tamara Scully

Entrances to livestock barns can get quite messy. Depending on how often and how many animals are utilizing it, plus any heavy equipment accessing the entryway, the area can become dangerous and dirty. As with other heavy use areas, proper planning, construction and maintenance can go a long way in mitigating cow comfort and safety issues.

“Areas where cattle tend to congregate seem to get ‘torn up’ and muddy. It is very common in areas where cattle ‘funnel’ into an entrance or after they exit. Mud – in cattle situations – consists of manure, urine and dirt. The more there is, the muddier things are,” Dan McFarland, agricultural engineering educator, Penn State Extension, said.

It might seem like a good idea to put down an impermeable surface, like concrete, to prevent problems. While concrete can be used in entryways, the problem of mud and muck will simply be moved further away from the door, and remain an issue at the edges of the concrete pad.

“Mud was a problem at the end of the tie-stall barn I worked at as a teenager. Mud knee-high to the cows was created just past the concrete apron at the end of the barn. Each of the years I worked there the owner would extend the apron another three to four feet to reduce the problem. Typically, it just moved the muddy area that much farther from the barn,” McFarland explained. “Improving surface drainage away from the area and removing the build-up of manure would probably have been more effective.”

Concrete can also be slippery, requiring special treatment to prevent cow injury.

“Any concrete surface should have a suitable texture to reduce slipping. A parallel or diamond (cross-hatch) grooved pattern is typical. Grooves should be half-inch wide and deep and spaced approximately four inches on center,” McFarland said. “I prefer grooves sawn in after the concrete has cured, but formed grooves are acceptable as long as they are done properly and any sharp edges or spots are removed before cattle are introduced.”

Finding Solutions

“There are issues any time animals, especially dairy or beef, walk off a concrete exit from a barn or an indoor or outdoor concrete exercise/loafing/animal concentration area (ACA),” said Peter Vanderstappen, state conservation engineer, USDA-NRCS. “It makes sense to have a concrete apron on the approach into a facility in some cases. Again, this moves the issue to edge of that pad. The pad should be textured or grooved. Direct transition to earth, even well compacted, will eventually get beat down, retain water and become a mud hole.”

Instead of compacted earth, solid footing requires stabilizing the soil by digging down, removing that dirt and adding some permeable, sturdy fill material.

“Barn entrance construction requires total removal of the sloppy soil, getting down to ground that is firm enough that you can walk on it without mucking up boots,” Charlie Greene, forest engineer and organic farmer from Niles, NY, said. “Whatever you do, the most important thing is to clean out all the muck down to good ground before you make any improvements. Wet ground is weak compared to dry ground. The soil particles flow.”

Once that firm, dry soil base is reached, it needs to be properly filled back in, using materials to stabilize the area and prevent mud and muck from occurring with heavy use.

“The best solution is geotextile topped with layers of stone, the bottom being three inches in diameter, and about six to eight inches thick, then chinked and topped with a mix of small stone and grit about four inches thick, and then topped with quarry dust, sand or other fines. This stone-reinforced area should be as wide as the entrance and extend out at least 10 feet,” Vanderstappen said.

Non-woven geotextile fabric is laid on top of the firm soil, followed by a rock layer, then a final top layer of softer surface. This creates an all-weather surface that can withstand heavy traffic. Using rock fill without geotextile fabric requires more rock.

Geotextile fabrics prevent the base material from mixing with the subgrade soil, redistribute pressure across the soil to help prevent ruts from heavy use and prevent separation of the aggregates used. Geotextile fabric also keeps the rocks from shifting. Geotexiles are porous, so water passes through them readily.

Another solution in some circumstances might be wood chips, Vanderstappen suggested. A 12-inch bark bed over a drainage system with tile is being used for heavy use areas for beef, and could potentially work as a dairy barn entrance material.

The drainage system collects runoff and puts it into a grassed treatment area. Manure is scraped off, and the bark is replaced yearly, or as needed, he explained.

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McFarland has another option that could work for some situations. “I have seen cattle slats used to stabilize these areas. The sod and topsoil are removed and a layer of crushed rock is put down and compacted before the slats are put down,” he said.

Fly ash and bottom ash from organic sources such as sawmill byproducts, untreated lumber and coal are another option for heavy use areas such as the barn entrance. Properly mixed and used at a pre-compaction depth of 18 inches or more, these materials can support heavy equipment use as well as livestock.

Controlling Water

While controlling surface drainage is important in barn entrance areas, John Tyson, agricultural engineer, Penn State Extension, emphasized that other sources of water need to be addressed as well in order for a barn entrance to remain functional.

“Excluding other ‘clean’ water is also important. Extra water is the real enemy of these areas,” Tyson said. “Adding roof gutters to a section of the barn to route rainwater away from the site may be needed. Grading other driveways and lanes so clean surface water runs away from the cow lane is needed. Maybe crowning the lane so extra water runs to the side where it can be collected and dealt with is needed.”

No matter the substrate, barn entrance areas get a lot of use and require regular attention.

“Even a well-built entrance will need operations and maintenance,” Vanderstappen said. “The surface material will need replacing. This is especially true for operations that use these areas to hold animals prior to milking. Manure will accumulate and need cleaning up. This will remove the fines much quicker and result in more maintenance.”

Preventing gouging of the area when cleaning off manure can help extend the life of the surface material.

Planning for safe barn entryways requires more than meets the eye. But doing it correctly will save labor and time, and keep cows comfortable and safe for the long run.

“Stabilizing the surface, improving surface drainage and keeping manure build-up at bay are probably the best solutions” to ensure barn entrances are constructed properly and continue to work as they were intended, McFarland said.

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