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Livestock facilities: Remodel or build new?

red barn with silo
NEW OR RETROFIT: If remodeling is going to cost more than two-thirds the cost of a new building, then a new building might be better in the long run.
Beef Column: Adapting existing facilities can be a great way to keep costs to a minimum.

By Bill Halfman

Helping livestock producers look at ways they can improve their livestock housing and handling facilities is a common project for county Extension and biosystems and ag engineering folks.

In Wisconsin, we often work with producers to consider the feasibility of adapting retired dairy facilities to house other livestock species, beef cattle being quite common. Adapting existing facilities can be a great way to keep costs to a minimum when starting or expanding a livestock enterprise. If poorly planned and executed, however, it can be more costly and troublesome in both the short term and the long term.

It is important to be thorough, realistic and honest when looking at the options.

A key consideration to keep in mind is that the buildings and facilities should allow you to efficiently implement a management plan. If reusing an existing space will not allow you to accomplish that, or if by doing so, you end up creating problems from a safety, health or efficiency standpoint, it may cost you more in the long run.

Following are some factors that we evaluate with livestock producers to determine if remodeling facilities or building new is the better option: 

• What are the needs of the operation? This includes number and size of animals, plus feedstuffs, feeding methods, bedding resources, ventilation and water.

•  How safe and labor-efficient is the building? How many people will it take to complete the necessary routine animal-care tasks? In many cases, it is necessary to design a floor plan to enable one person to do everything in an easy and safe manner. Ask yourself, can I do these things and can I do them easily in this current space? The basic tasks to consider include: feeding, watering, providing fresh air in all weather conditions, observing animals, adding bedding, removing bedding and manure, treating ill animals, breeding or birthing, and other related tasks.

• What about the structure of the existing building(s)? Is the current structure in good condition and able to remain that way after new doors are installed or interior floor plan changes are made? Is there adequate room and ceiling height for air quality needs? Can you get in and out easily with skid loaders and other equipment to complete routine chores? What about utilities, electrical and plumbing — if they are not adequate, how much will it cost to update or upgrade them? Is the building in a location that will meet new needs, as far as traffic patterns and ease of access by both animals and people?

If we evaluate a building and determine it’s not suitable for animal housing, there still may be a use for it in the operation. It may work for feed storage or to house cattle-working facilities or special-needs pens, where stocking density would be considerably lower, and cleaning and bedding would be significantly less frequent.

Whether it is a retrofit or new facility, remember the cattle handling basics in design. Cattle prefer to move toward the light and balk at dark corners. Prevent distractions and shadows, overly sharp corners, and so forth. Worn concrete in older dairy barns may need to be addressed to assure good footing. Good animal movement can be accomplished in many older facilities; however, the location of support posts, windows and doors may need to be modified. 

When these considerations are done, then it’s time to look at the costs. A rule of thumb is that if remodeling is going to cost more than two-thirds the cost of a new building, then the new building might be better in the long run, when you start looking at maintenance and repairs.

Halfman is the Extension ag agent in Monroe County, Wis. This column is provided by the University of Wisconsin Extension’s Wisconsin Beef Information Center. Learn more at

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