When the dairy herd is sold and the buildings are empty, is there a use for them? Tim Terry, dairy farmstead strategic specialist with Cornell Pro-Dairy, says yes. On many farms, old barns can be repurposed for housing goats or sheep.

Owners of old barns have several options, including salvaging anything worth saving and razing the barn. This is a drastic decision but could be a safety issue. “If the barn hasn’t been cared for properly,” said Terry, “it could be waiting for the next windstorm or heavy snowfall.”

Another option is tweaking the barn to bring it back to service. Many old bank barns and pole buildings can be retrofitted for an expanded or updated enterprise. In this case, consider the costs.

“You’re still going to have an old facility with all its limitations and idiosyncrasies,” said Terry. “If [the cost of] any of these options is greater than 50% of a new structure, think long and hard before acting.” (That 50% guideline is flexible and allows for discretion.)

Terry said farmers often overestimate the value of an existing structure. There’s usually a sentimentality factor, and it can be difficult to destroy a building that’s been in the family for generations.

“We need to see this as ‘sunk capital,’” he said. “Just as if it were sitting on the bottom of the ocean, it’s gone and the investment is unrecoverable. Throwing more money after it is not a wise use of resources.”

Farmers tend to underestimate the cost of remodeling, and it may be impossible to install new systems without compromising structural integrity. Old barns often don’t have adequate wall or head space to house new fixtures.

Some farmers take on remodeling projects themselves without realizing the skill level required to complete them. Projects require certain tools and materials along with time. Farmers often fail to consider the cost of long-term inefficiencies that remain in the facility despite improvements. Issues including square footage per head, ventilation and working areas.

Evaluating an old barn for future use begins with the foundation. Cracks, settling and shifting may be acceptable, but vertical cracks through the mortar and block or stone may mean trouble. “It could be an indication of differential settling or shifting of the foundation,” Terry said. “The stones in old barns were originally laid out on excavated earth footing below the frost line. There is no continuous reinforced concrete footer.”

Walls with loose or missing mortar can be cleaned and repointed. “Typical Portland mortar might be too hard, especially for soft stone,” said Terry. “Look for a sand mix. There might be loose concrete or plaster coats in the barn, which is usually an indicator of hydraulic pressure from the other side.”

New uses for old barns

Examine the ceiling in the lower barn and remember it’s the floor of the upper barn and may be expected to support significant weight. This portion of the ceiling has extensive water damage and must be replaced prior to safely using the upper mow. Photo by Sally Colby

Evaluate the roof, including the condition of the roof covering and flashing. “A good 35-year shingle only lasts about 25 years,” said Terry. “If there’s slate on the barn, you’re ahead if the nails are in good shape. Cedar shakes may only require cleaning and waterproofing. Steel or aluminum may last 50 years as long as the fasteners are kept tight.” Aluminum expands and contracts, and over time fastener holes become larger than the fasteners themselves.

Check flashing and valleys along shed roofs and cupolas. Rusted or missing metal plates need to be shored with plates or 2x4s. Evaluate the roof from the underside and look for water stains, rotted sheathing and black mold. Terry cautioned farmers to be extremely careful with black mold because disturbed spores can lead to mycotoxicosis, a serious respiratory disease.

From the outside, check to see that walls are straight. “Check at eave level,” said Terry. “A sagging roofline may indicate shifting. If sagging walls are pulled out, floor joists and rafters may only be sitting on a fingernail width of bearing surface.”

To solve this problem, clean the joint with compressed air and a Shop-Vac, then cable it together. The repair may require both lateral and diagonal cables to correct the frame and prevent shifting.

Evaluate the interior of the barn, including the locations of drains and gutters and where drainage is aimed. Remember that when old barns were constructed, there were no water management or manure disposal standards, so it’s important to perform a barn rehab to meet federal, state and local water and manure regulations.

Check the condition of floors and determine whether they should be resurfaced or replaced. Floors with large cracks or missing concrete are difficult to clean and may be a tripping hazard.

Check the ceiling, which is the floor of the hay mow. “Look for areas with black spotting or water stains,” said Terry. “Make sure these areas are sound, especially if you’ll be moving hay wagons in and out.” Jacking and beam replacement might be necessary.

Determine whether the lower barn doors and inner space can accommodate cleaning equipment such as a skid steer.

If the existing insulation is full of vermin feces and moisture, replace it with rock wool or closed-cell spray foam.

Look at the barn’s location in relation to surrounding topography. Many old barns were built near a creek or other water source to supply water for livestock and for cooling milk. In many cases, it’s more economical to rebuild on another area of the farm. Consider access to other buildings and the farmyard, and whether the farm’s current equipment can be moved easily.

“Think about pickup and delivery,” said Terry. “A lot of deliveries are made with semis or large wagons – can they get in and out? What about expandability to grow the business? Can you add to the structure, and will it be in the way of other facilities or encroach on farm lanes?”

The building interior should be large enough for its planned use. If not, can the building be expanded in any direction? Is there sufficient space for equipment such as a treatment chute or tilt table, and is there adequate clearance for walls, ceilings and support columns?

Examine the condition of plumbing and wiring. Replace any plumbing with properly sized pipes for the current water pressure. “Black polyethylene pipe will work,” said Terry. “Be sure to get 160 psi pipe and not 100 psi pipe. Any little movement or freezing will cause 100 psi pipe to burst.”

Check any natural gas or propane lines to be sure they meet current codes. Old asphalt wrap on copper wire becomes brittle and any movement will crack it, possibly resulting in arcing and sparking. Determine whether the electrical amperage is sufficient to handle peak draws, especially if heat lamps will be used.

One last consideration is biosecurity. Make sure there’s space for properly sited isolation pens and that the building can be sufficiently cleaned and disinfected in the event of disease outbreak.

by Sally Colby