When evaluating an old free-stall or bank barn to use for raising beef cattle, considerations for usefulness should include obvious defects such as roof condition, broken beams, missing supports, bulging or missing walls, inadequate water or electricity, drainage and condition of concrete both inside and outside the building. It’s usually worth consulting an experienced ag engineer to evaluate building condition to determine whether it’s worth pursuing repairs or modifications.

But animal well-being is another important component of refurbishing a building for beeves. Understanding nutritional and housing needs as well as basic animal behavior is a critical aspect of good husbandry.

When evaluating a building, consider the options for creating the ideal feeding surface. Penn State ag engineer Dan McFarland said that because cattle are grazers, it’s natural for them to eat with their head down in a grazing position.

Ideally, cattle will have a feeding surface (or “feed table”) located about two to six inches above the surface they’re standing on. Whether the surface is a feed bunk or a flat feed table, rails may influence feeding behavior and animal welfare. “It only takes about 250 pounds of pressure for an animal to bruise,” said McFarland. “Animals will put 500 pounds of pressure to reach feed. They’re hurting themselves to eat.”

To prevent bruising during feeding, make sure rails in a feed bunk are positioned so cattle aren’t pushing hard against them. If cables are part of the feeding area, be aware of the potential for damaged vertebrae if cattle are shoved forward during feeding.

TMR and silage contain corrosive agents that eat away at concrete. Cattle tend to consume more feed if the feeding surface is smooth because their tongue isn’t constantly licking rough concrete. A smooth, durable surface also helps keep feed clean and makes feed pushback easier. Tile or poly materials are options for a smooth feeding surface.

Cattle should have continuous access to good quality water. McFarland isn’t a fan of automatic waterers that have a flap or a disc primarily because if young cattle are brought to the farm for feed-out, they may be unfamiliar with such a waterer. The general guideline for waterers is either one hole or two lineal feet of water space per 25 head of cattle. At least two frost-free waterers should be available for each group of animals.

Confident footing is essential to reduce the risk of slipping and split injuries. McFarland isn’t fond of scabbling to improve surfaces because an animal may take a step and land with one claw on the top of the ridge and the other claw at the bottom.

In place of scabbling, grooving is a safer option. Be aware of any obstacles on the walking surface such as metal plates or holes that might cause cattle to shy away and potentially become injured. Rubber mats can help improve walking surfaces but may become slippery. In some cases, especially in older buildings where concrete is cracked or heavy machinery will be used routinely, new concrete might be the best option.

In a dairy barn with free-stalls, the stalls can be removed and the center feed bunk left in. “Removing free-stalls gives us an area for bedded space,” said McFarland. “In one of the systems we worked with, they took the dividers out, left the stall bases in and filled the alley between with bedding. That was the bedded pack.”

Be aware of where manure and excess moisture will likely accumulate. Cattle typically leave about half their waste at the feed area and half in the area where they rest. Outdoor feeding areas in a fenced lot work well for manure management, but such areas should be covered to protect feed.

Old buildings, new tricks

Old bank barns make suitable beef facilities, but sometimes don’t accommodate modern equipment. Photo by Sally Colby

Waterers placed toward the back of the bedded pack tend to create a wet mess, but this can be avoided. “One thing that’s often done is fencing the area so cattle can only drink from the alley they’re feeding from,” said McFarland. “They can’t drink from the bedded area. That usually reduces the amount of slop and helps save bedding.”

Old bank barns are often used for raising beef cattle and can be adapted to ensure good ventilation and smooth traffic flow for both cattle and humans. Many bank barns do not have sufficient side clearance to move a skid steer in for cleaning, but opening the front of the barn will solve this problem as well as contribute to better ventilation.

Bank barns typically have ventilation issues that must be corrected and managed. McFarland suggested installing a pressure system. “It’s a fan and a duct,” he said. “The duct runs along the bank side for the entire length of the barn. It blows air into where the worst quality air is, hopefully encouraging it out of the front and providing fresh air in the back.” Two fans, one at each end, will double the air exchange.

“Fans will take care of about 20% to 25% on either side,” said McFarland. “We can space fans along the back of the building where the bank is, build a calf hutch-like structure enclosure above the mow floor and blow it out the back of the barn. That draws fresh air from the open side and exhausts air from where the worst quality air is.”

Another option is to build a grate over a fan in the mow floor. The fan blows down onto a deflector, forces fresh air in and forces stale air to leave the barn. In some cases, the bank that goes with the bank barn can be removed to open the back wall. A bridge is constructed to allow access to the mow.

Handling facilities of some kind are essential for the safety of both cattle and those working with them. Such facilities allow better management of cattle health and should include scales to enable accurate weight monitoring throughout the feeding period.

Managing runoff is a critical aspect of raising beef cattle in confinement. Early spring is a good time to watch for runoff and erosion – note the origin of any waste and wastewater and where it goes. During and after rain events, take photos for reference and use them to plan runoff diversion. In some cases, runoff can be diverted to a grassed waterway that will absorb nutrients. Animals may have to be temporarily moved during certain times of the year to avoid excess runoff.

“Many buildings can be refitted to accommodate beef cattle,” said McFarland. “Each one is unique. All costs, tangible and intangible, must be considered for the health and performance of the animals. If a refitted system complements your enterprise, go for it. But if renovation costs are too high and animal environment is substandard and doesn’t provide reasonable working conditions for the caregivers, walk away and consider other alternatives.”

by Sally Colby