A barn is among the most important structures and largest investments on a homestead. It’s essential to think through all the key features before building one.
The perfect barn for each farm varies depending on the type of operation, livestock housed, location, size and personal preference. But the more you can identify just what you intend to do on your homestead, the better you can plan the structure to accommodate all your needs.
“Building a homestead barn is an exciting project, but it can become a nightmare if you don’t do proper planning,” says Emily McCafferty, author of The Owner-Builder Home Planner.
“Take time to really research any requirements you may face on your property. And as with any building project, go above and beyond in your material and labor estimates. You’ll have a more enjoyable project if you budget a generous overage for both your money and time to build.”
In addition to time and money, important aspects to consider include the location, barn type, size, flooring material, livestock accommodations, feed storage, manure handling, electricity and water.
Location, Location, Location
Deciding on the location for the homestead barn is one of the first and most critical decisions to make before building it.
Ideally, the location will make it airy and easily cleaned. It should also be comfortable for you and your livestock, warm in the winter and cool in the summer. A barn should be sited so that it stays dry, drains well—consider thawing spring snow and rain—has easy equipment access and is conveniently located near the house.
A structure near the house is preferable because you aim to make many enjoyable trips there. However, check local ordinances. Some require a minimum distance between animal housing and habitable buildings.
If you want running water and electricity, make sure you can get them to your barn location. Also, take advantage of available light, breezes and shade to help stabilize temperatures year-round in the barn.
Planning to use the homestead barn to house livestock? The location should protect the animals from drafts but also provide good ventilation.
Even in the coldest areas of the United States, most mature livestock can tolerate winter temperatures if they are dry and protected from the wind. But ample ventilation is necessary so that ammonia fumes—from urine in the bedding—don’t cause the animals respiratory problems.
It’s also a good idea to locate the structure downwind from any prevailing winds that pass by the house to minimize odors.
Barn Size & Style
A frequent and costly mistake that homesteaders and farmers make is not building the barn big enough to accommodate all their needs.
You can readily observe this by driving through the countryside and noting how many barns and farm outbuildings have one or more additions.
Also, although there are many different homestead barn types (see “Barn Types,” below, for a description of the most popular), those with a second story for storage are more cost effective. Initially, it might seem less costly to erect a single-story barn. But having a second story for storage can nearly double the available barn space.
Be careful to plan for a homestead barn large enough to house all the equipment and animals you intend to own. Plan it with future expansions in mind. And stay prepared to accommodate a growing livestock herd over time.
Plan enough stalls or pens to separately accommodate males, females and babies of whatever different livestock animals you might want to acquire.
Remember that intact males are often housed separately from females. Also note that females giving birth benefit from individual pens, and weaned babies need separate pens, too.
You should plan to store things needed for animal care, such as hay and bedding. Also, consider a wash bay for cleaning animals, a tack room to protect leather goods from dust and moisture, and a dedicated feed storage room.
Equipment storage planning should include things such as:
- a tractor
- tractor implements
- livestock trailer
- lawn tractor
- utility vehicl
- other equipment specific to your farming plans
If milking is a possibility, then evaluate a milking parlor. Various state and local laws regulate how milk must be handled if you intend to sell it for animal or human consumption or for the production of nonedibles, such as soap.
Review the rules surrounding milk and its handling when designing a barn for any animals you intend to milk. Some states require that you must process any milk for sale in a grade-A dairy. This might necessitate hot water and bathroom facilities in the barn.
The standard choices for barn flooring material are concrete or dirt. Each has advantages and disadvantages depending on the intended use of the space.
Dirt floors are inexpensive but are not very sanitary. Livestock animals have been milked on dirt floors for centuries. But many state and local codes do not permit milking on a dirt floor if the milk is to be sold for human consumption.
Concrete is a lot easier to clean and therefore more sanitary. But if you house animals, it doesn’t soak up urine like a dirt floor. Also, large animals such as horses can compact dirt flooring so much that it acts like concrete.
It’s often recommended that dirt floors be placed over a base of crushed limestone. The limestone promotes drainage and minimizes odors.
A common practice in barns used for many purposes is to mix flooring materials appropriate for the intended uses of the space. For example, use dirt flooring in livestock pens and concrete in milking parlors and equipment storage areas.
It’s a good idea to design barn pens or stalls specifically for the type of livestock you plan to house.
For example, stalls for larger animals such as horses are typically built entirely of wood. However, you should construct pens for smaller livestock such as goats from material that the animals can see through. This is because they like to interact with each other.
Cattle panels or woven wire fencing are often used to construct indoor pens. But depending on the animal type, woven wire fencing might not work well. Some livestock species, such as goats, might stand on the wire so frequently that it will eventually fatigue and break. When it does, it can badly injure an animal.
Cattle panels are therefore usually the sturdier and safer choice for indoor pens.
To learn what type of pens and materials work best for each animal species, visit your county fairground livestock buildings. They typically have stalls or pens constructed to best suit each type of livestock.
Water & Electricity
Many farms and homesteads have no running water or electricity in the barn. But having these amenities makes things much more convenient.
Running water in the barn makes watering livestock and cleaning out the barn much easier. And electricity makes things such as lights, birthing surveillance cameras, heated waterers, ventilation fans, clippers, milking machines and electric fencing possible.
Solar power is another option to consider for electricity and hot water. Initially, solar power might be more expensive to install. However, over time it can pay for itself via saved energy costs.
When planning electrical wiring, remember that you can rough in additional electrical features at the same time you do the original wiring. That way, the wiring is already in place and you need only to add fixtures when they become necessary.
Be sure to plan ahead for things you hope to implement in the future.
The homestead barn should be designed so that you can easily store adequate amounts of hay and feed, keeping it dry and protected from rodents.
The upper story of a barn makes an excellent area for hay storage. Most barns also have a separate room or area for feed storage.
Store feed in a separate room or containers that the animals can’t access. Otherwise, they might gorge on grain—which is often deadly—if they escape their stall or pen.
Other amenities to consider in a feed storage room include the follwing:
- storage cabinets for supplies and medicine
- a refrigerator
- plenty of counter space.
Manure & Bedding
When planning a barn to house livestock, keep in mind that you’ll need to remove manure and soiled bedding and haul it to compost piles (or somewhere) frequently. And it’s a lot easier to haul large quantities downhill than uphill.
Also design pens and stalls so you can get in with equipment to remove soiled bedding and manure easily.
Unless you know exactly what you will do on your homestead, it’s probably not possible to design a forever perfect barn. However, it’s hard to over-emphasize how important planning the structure is. Carefully consider all aspects, and give yourself maximum flexibility for whatever your homestead might become.
Effective planning results in an enjoyable barn that instills pride, and one that saves you time, money and effort down the road.
There are many different styles of barns to choose from, and the ones described below are all two-story options that are popular choices in the United States.
As the name implies, these barns are built into the side of a hill (bank).
This allows access to the first and second-story levels from the ground level and helps to moderate barn temperatures. These barns provide two full stories of room plus a small loft. But they are significantly more expensive to build because of the foundational strength required.
The first level often houses livestock. The second level of this barn type often stores equipment and hay.
A gambrel barn is traditionally used for storage on farms and ranches. This type of barn offers the most loft space for hay storage, which makes it a popular type of barn for livestock.
The main design of this structure is the gambrel roof, which uses two different slopes on each side of the roof to maximize internal storage space. The design also takes advantage of the sloped roof’s ability to shed water and snow.
These A-frame barns have roofs with an “A” shape and a steep pitch.
The steep pitch helps prevent rainwater or snow from accumulating on the roof and causing water damage. The gable roof is one of the most affordable roof designs. However, it provides less loft space than other popular barn designs.
This type of barn has a portion of raised roof in the center and is sometimes called a raised center aisle or RCA barn.
The raised roof removes some of the loft storage that would be available. But it allows windows to be installed below the raised roof, letting in lots of natural light.
This story originally appeared in the September/October 2019 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.