Drive the Illinois countryside, and you’ll see a landscape dotted with barns, abandoned feedlots and old silos, remnants of a bygone era. Over the past several decades, Midwestern pastures were plowed up and converted to rows of green and gold — and in nowhere more than Illinois, where cattle inventories are down 58% from their peak in 1972. Nationwide, those numbers are only off 20% over the same time period.
Still, folks like Nic Anderson maintain the state is ripe with opportunity for cattle production heading into 2023, in part due to its proximity to alternative feed sources like ethanol co-products and beef markets. And with skyrocketing fertilizer prices, manure is suddenly more valuable.
How to make the most of those opportunities? Anderson says the right facilities can make all the difference and help maximize labor, too.
“The right cattle barn gives you a system to take advantage of alternative feed options,” says Anderson of The Livestock Desk, who previously served as head of the Illinois Livestock Development Group for 17 years. Anderson traveled the state helping hundreds of farms do planning and expansion where he observed industry changes in efficiency and cost of production.
“Producers can utilize lower-cost feed options like ethanol co-products,” he says. “There’s so much opportunity to feed cattle in the Midwest because of our proximity to resources.”
Anderson says the three most common barn designs are monoslopes, vented gable roof barns and hoop barns.
Monoslope. In this steel-and-wood structure, one side of the roof is higher than the other to best use sun and air movement. Monoslopes are designed to maximize sun exposure for heat in the winter and shade in the summer, with excellent ventilation.
Vented gable roof barn. This steel-and-wood structure has two equivalent sides sloping upward and meeting in a covered vent, or ridge, in the center for ventilation.
Hoop barn. This Quonset-shaped structure is constructed of a tarp or canvas roof and steel arches.
“All of these buildings maximize cow comfort, feed efficiency and worker comfort,” Anderson says. “The right barn is going to change your management style, and you’ll become more efficient, not only with the cattle but with your time management.”
Anderson says each building has two flooring options:
Bedded pack. This floor uses traditional bedding, like straw or cornstalks, on a concrete or dirt floor.
Slatted floor deep pit. This floor is made of concrete or rubber with openings for waste that drain into a pit underneath the barn.
What’s the first step? Understand the needs of the farm and livestock, and know the purpose of the barn. If you can answer that, Anderson says, you’ll land on the barn that works best for you.
Ventilation considerations rise to the top for any viable cattle confinement scenario.
“The goal is always to make the barn wider and taller, because you have more volume of air to transfer air quality,” says Anderson. “I am a proponent of a 16- to 18-foot eave height, regardless of barn type.”
Gables and monoslopes
Touring different types of barns and asking questions is one of the most valuable steps you can take to select the right barn.
“We took tours of anybody that let us see their barns to see what they’re doing right and what they’re doing wrong,” says Derek Dean of Dean Bacon and Beef in LeRoy, Ill. The Deans have 200 spring cows, 100 fall cows, do their own backgrounding and finish 600 head each year. They graze cows on pasture in the spring and cornstalks in the winter across DeWitt County.
“Mostly people will tell you what they wish they would’ve done — and you can learn a lot that way,” he adds.
Dean decided on a monoslope bedded-pack barn for a calving barn and a gable roof on a slatted floor for their feeder cattle. The monoslope calving barn is 420 feet long by 62 feet wide and will hold 200 cows and calves. The gable finishing barn is 300 feet long by 62 feet wide and will hold 600 head. Both barns were built by Longhorn Cattle and Swine Confinements in Pittsfield, Ill.
The decision to build a calving barn and a finishing barn, he says, has paid dividends for both sides of their cattle business.
“Having all the cows confined to one area, I can check cows in 30 minutes instead of taking me all day when they’re out on pasture,” Dean explains. “They do well in there. They seem content, happy and grow really well.”
And as for the gable barn on slats, Dean’s manure management efforts have equated to balance-sheet gains — especially in 2022.
“In the deep-pitted barn, labor is a non-factor. There’s no scraping; there’s no bedding,” Dean says. “The con is you have to get rid of the manure, but the pro right now is you have to get rid of manure that’s worth a lot of money.”
Ted Funk, retired University of Illinois Extension engineer, estimates the value of beef manure could range from $125 per acre up to $400 per acre for corn at 220-bushel-per-acre yield, depending on the needs and restrictions on application rates. You’ll need to have a manure sample tested to understand the true value and to avoid overapplying nutrients.
Hoops and monoslopes
Ken Dau of Dau Land and Cattle LLC in Sheridan, Ill., went a different route after his family’s cattle barn was destroyed in a tornado in 2004. Dau decided that a hoop barn was the most cost-effective option at the time to follow his passion of feeding cattle. The hoop barn is a Winkler Building built by A&B Construction in Harper, Iowa. It measures 238 feet long by 80 feet wide with a 5-foot eave on each side and has a capacity of 100 head.
“When I returned to the family farm, I needed to generate more income to support being home,” Dau says. “The barn definitely makes it easier to increase the cattle numbers. It allows vertical integration with current acreage and less capital requirement to expand with land.”
Dau built the hoop barn over the concrete slab from the previous barn to keep expenses low during expansion, which meant he ended up using a bedded-pack floor. They clean out and replace bedding twice a week to keep cattle dry and healthy.
Years later, Dau again got the itch to expand his cattle herd. That time, he decided on a monoslope to capitalize on cattle comfort and manure management — all while keeping labor to a minimum so he and his father, Gary, could handle growing the herd without additional employees.
The monoslope was built by V&C Construction Co. in Walnut, Ill. It measures 520 feet long by 57 feet wide and has a capacity of 850 head.
Dau now uses his hoop barn as a starting facility and finishes cattle in the monoslope barn.
Cattle barns allow producers flexibility, alternative feed source options and new profit streams to hedge against economic uncertainty.
“If you’re in the cattle business, look for opportunities, because they’re out there,” Anderson concludes. “Take full advantage of the technology that a barn provides, and you’ll stay ahead of the curve.”
5 questions to answer before you build
In addition to choosing a barn design, answer these questions to help guide your building project:
- What permits and regulatory processes are needed? This may depend on whether your barn is an expansion or a completely new infrastructure.
- If another barn would be built someday, where would it go? The answer may dictate where the first barn is built to best use space.
- Does a lender need to be involved? How will the project be funded? And what does cash flow look like on a barn project with a hefty initial investment?
- What builder to use? Selecting the right builder can determine project quality, building design, trust in the builder-farmer relationship and communication throughout the building process.
- How will barn layout match management style? Consider cows vs. feeders, bunk space, working facilities, pen size, office space, etc.