Prairie Farmer Logo

Tops for cow comfort

Commentary: Here’s how we built a better calving barn.

Holly Spangler, Prairie Farmer Senior Editor

April 18, 2024

12 Slides

Like a lot of cattle farmers in the Midwest, we run cows because we have rough ground that would wash away if we tried to grow row crops on it — but it makes ideal pasture.

But that also means after decades of raising cattle, we were calving in four different places, in old barns and three-sided sheds, and spending way too many man-hours hauling feed, checking cows, moving gates and treating calves. Plus, as our winters have changed and the ground is less likely to freeze and stay frozen until March, we were dealing with too much mud, losing calves to both mud and disease.

It was time to consolidate those efforts. My husband, John, started researching back in 2022, driving around to check out various buildings, including monoslopes, gables and hoops. He met with builders, got estimates and started formulating a plan.

The result: a 50-by-256-foot hoop structure, built on the same farm as our primary cattle facility and the grain system. That’s also where all the feed, hay and stalk bales are located, and it’s on a blacktop road. All the right things.

We decided on a hoop building because of the airflow and natural lighting, plus it cost a little less than a monoslope or gable. We went with B&B Building Systems, Camp Point, Ill. Total capacity is 100 cows.

Looking inside

For making pens, John found a farmer-owned company in Iowa, Coon River Gate Co., that makes what it calls Enduragates. They’re set in tires filled with concrete, so you can move them and scrape out the building. They’ve also got double hinges so you can swing gates in either direction, which makes for a lot of options.

In writing this story, I asked John if he still liked the gates, and he didn’t miss a beat: “Love the gates.”

He also painted all the gates, guardrails and metal posts with cold galvanizing paint.

Each of the waterers has a little wall around it, so cows have to walk around to the scrape alley side to drink — so they’re leaving manure there instead of in the pen.

John says when the building was full this winter, they scraped the manure alley every other day and bedded twice a week. He found a tire manure scraper to mount on the loader tractor or skid steer, made by Mensch Manufacturing, Hastings, Mich.

The manure holding area is 16 by 36 feet, to comply with the Livestock Management Facilities Act. After the build was engineered, the plan had to be approved by the Illinois Department of Agriculture, in a process that took about three months. The only major change required was that the walls be poured instead of precast, to contain manure and water. That’s a change we’re glad to have made, because the poured walls are stronger.

Prior to building, the engineer had to submit a soil sample to be sure there was enough clay. Then IDOA came for inspections after concrete was poured and again after the building was completed.

Comfortable cows

At capacity, the building holds 100 cows, and we moved the first bovines in just before Christmas. This year in August, we plan to move 30 fall calvers in and bring in the weaned spring calves. We’ll keep both there until the calves sell in December, and we’ll move the cows and calves out to stalks or another location. Then about 100 spring calvers will move in, calve and stay until pastures are fit.

One of the best benefits has been reduced feed intake. John consulted Travis Meteer with University of Illinois Extension about feed rations and quantity, and it turns out cows ate about half as much as before — good news, given that we’d fed so much hay last summer to make up for drought-depleted pastures.

“It just doesn’t take much to maintain a cow in that building,” John says. Plus, we’re limit-feeding, with a lot of straw and cornstalks in the ration. Overall, the cows went through half as much hay, haylage and corn silage.

About the Author(s)

Holly Spangler

Prairie Farmer Senior Editor, Farm Progress

Holly Spangler has covered Illinois agriculture for more than two decades, bringing meaningful production agriculture experience to the magazine’s coverage. She currently serves as editor of Prairie Farmer magazine and Executive Editor for Farm Progress, managing editorial staff at six magazines throughout the eastern Corn Belt. She began her career with Prairie Farmer just before graduating from the University of Illinois in agricultural communications.

An award-winning writer and photographer, Holly is past president of the American Agricultural Editors Association. In 2015, she became only the 10th U.S. agricultural journalist to earn the Writer of Merit designation and is a five-time winner of the top writing award for editorial opinion in U.S. agriculture. She was named an AAEA Master Writer in 2005. In 2011, Holly was one of 10 recipients worldwide to receive the IFAJ-Alltech Young Leaders in Ag Journalism award. She currently serves on the Illinois Fairgrounds Foundation, the U of I Agricultural Communications Advisory committee, and is an advisory board member for the U of I College of ACES Research Station at Monmouth. Her work in agricultural media has been recognized by the Illinois Soybean Association, Illinois Corn, Illinois Council on Agricultural Education and MidAmerica Croplife Association.

Holly and her husband, John, farm in western Illinois where they raise corn, soybeans and beef cattle on 2,500 acres. Their operation includes 125 head of commercial cows in a cow/calf operation. The family farm includes John’s parents and their three children.

Holly frequently speaks to a variety of groups and organizations, sharing the heart, soul and science of agriculture. She and her husband are active in state and local farm organizations. They serve with their local 4-H and FFA programs, their school district, and are active in their church's youth and music ministries.

Subscribe to receive top agriculture news
Be informed daily with these free e-newsletters

You May Also Like