May 1993

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A History of Barns


John Rezelman

Village Barns, The Pioneer Barn, The Nineteenth Century Barn, Evolution of the Present-day Barn

Evolution of the Present-day Barn

The dairy farmer of thirty-odd years ago in this region who had a thoroughly modernized 1880-built barn, complete with bulk tank, pipeline milker, mechanical barn cleaner, automatic silo unloader and drinking water at every stall could, and doubtless did, feel content that his physical plant was as up-to-date as you could hope to get He probably thought further improvement unnecessary and unlikely. People have always thought that way. A company of archers armed with the English longbow was once thought to be the ultimate lethal military weapon—yet look at all the horrible implements of destruction we have "gone through" since then. So even as our smug-feeling farmer of that time went about his chores, great changes in his type of farming were taking form.

They evolved into what is now the up-to-date set of dairy buildings, dairying having meanwhile become the predominant kind of farming in most of the region as well. The essential characteristics of the present-day dairy-barn complex are (1) a "milking parlor," where all milking is done, (2) cows housed in a very much ventilated pole-construction type of shelter with "free stalls," automated feeding and concrete-paved alleys cleaned by daily scraping with a fossil-fuel driven, skid-steer machine. These systems are built usually for multiples of one hundred cows, that being about twice as many as a big herd of forty years ago. Units of three hundred and four hundred cows and more exist and grow steadily more numerous year by year as smaller units phase out. This change is driven by pressure to curb labor costs by accomplishing more with the same or fewer workers, substituting capital for labor.

You readily recognize this modern dairy set-up as you see it out in the country side. There will be a milkhouse-milking parlor building, usually of masonry construction attached to a one-story cow-shelter building of pole construction, relatively long and low with many openings for air circulation. In it will be rows of "free stall" alleys. Hay will be stored in a similar building or left unprotected in weather-resistant "big round" bales. There may be numbers of "tower" silos as a striking feature or there may be the more inconspicuous trench or bunker silos. Clearly, these complexes are a new feature in the landscape and much too large to escape notice. Taking their components one by one:

Milking Parlor. This is a room containing an in-place pipeline milking machine where, instead of the milker going to the cows in their stalls, the cows come to him in groups of six, eight or twelve, maybe more. They enter stalls where part of their grain ration awaits them which they consume while being milked. These stalls may be "in line," but more likely they will be angled in two rows, as in "double four herringbone." You can get more cows into a lineal distance by angling them, just as streets will hold more cars angled into the curb than parallel-parked. The milkers meanwhile, stand through the entire operation in pits below floor level, so that the cows' udders are at or about at their waist level or slightly above. This eliminates their having to continually and repeatedly get down to the level of the cow's udder. It reduces their fatigue and the time involved in waste motion and lets them milk more cows in less time. In fact, failing knees on the dairyman has induced the conversion to many a milking parlor. The milk pipelines are short, as they connect directly with a bulk cooling tank in an adjacent milkroom. These set-ups are called "parlors" perhaps because they can be made with tiled walls, heated, and kept very clean, comfortable, and sanitary. The milker lets cows in and out without ever moving from his pit. There are few operational problems with this method, once the cows become accustomed to it.

Cattle Housing. In the earliest days of converting to parlor milking the practice of cow housing was called "loose housing," which is just what it was. Cows were not confined in stalls but turned loose in open spaces to do as they pleased, on a heavily-bedded accumulating manure pack. It was the old straw-stack barnyard all over again, only under roof. This time it did not work nearly as well. It was one thing to turn a dozen or so head in with about all the straw a family could produce, and quite another to house 60 or 100 cows with a cropping system that continually reduced straw-producing small-grain acreage in favor of more corn and alfalfa. It was hard to get enough bedding, much of which had to be purchased. Result-uncomfortable and dirty cows. When the object of winter feeding was only survival 'til spring it didn't matter if cattle were filthy—it would all come off when they shed their winter coat of hair. But when producing fluid milk for human consumption, that couldn't be tolerated. Also, with loose housing, the domineering cows persecuted the timid ones, driving them away from feed, upsetting them and reducing their production. Loose housing didn't last long. An improvement over it had to be found.

And found it was, in the "free-stall" system. Rows of cubicles open on one end were installed where any cow could go to lie down and rest or just retreat and ruminate, protected from harassment The stall interiors were bedded in various ways, adequately but not wastefully. The cows seldom soiled them. The alleys where manure accumulated were not bedded at all, but scraped clean on a regular basis. The manure was either spread on fields at once or stored in a lagoon or a tank-like structure separated from the building until the opportune time for applying it to the land. Hay, silage, and grain-based feed were served to the cows in a mechanized manner. Now the cows were happy, the farmers were happy and the milk market's sanitary inspectors were happy. This system works and is expected to continue to work.

Other specialized buildings like machinery storage are usually made on the same general construction plan as the cow-shelter buildings. It would be neglectful to leave the subject of present-day barns without mention of the modern poultry house.

In pioneer days poultry lived around the farmstead in a sort of semi-wild existence, foraging and roosting where they pleased and hiding their eggs, which the farm family gathered if they could.

In the heyday of the gambrel-roof barn it was thought chickens should be kept in separate flocks of not more than 100 or 200 birds. Individual chicken houses were limited to that size and while they were often carefully designed structures, admitting maximum possible daylight, they were still only minor buildings. Following this came the multiple-story hen house, old large barns often being converted to 3-story hen houses. These were labor-wasting (as it turned out) structures that could not long compete. There are few things more useless today than an empty 3-story poultry house, and only a few, in a state of neglect, still stand.

Today's poultry house is a large 1-story structure, often hundreds of feet long, often of pole construction and made to hold multiples of 10,000 birds-30,000, 40,000, whatever. It has no windows; it houses hens in cages, say 5 birds to a cage; feeding, watering, egg gathering, and cleaning are all done automatically by electric power, on which they are totally dependent, even for life-sustaining ventilation. If electric power were to fail on a hot summer day and the farmer's back-up generator didn't take its place, every bird in one of these houses would be dead in about half an hour—they are that dependent on electric-driven fan ventilation. Like the free-stall dairy system, these poultry systems do work in the production of eggs and meat. The little farm flock providing family food has become big business, but in very few widely-separated units now.

Once again we probably find it hard to imagine how milk and eggs could be produced more efficiently, measured against the per-man standard we have come to use—but if there is any lesson history consistently teaches us, it is that the future will somehow be different from what we think or what we know today.

© 1993, John Rezelman
Village Barns, The Pioneer Barn, The Nineteenth Century Barn, Evolution of the Present-day Barn
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