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An Efficient, Economical Barn

by David Foxley of Lander, WY

In “Little Field Notes,” Spring 2010 issue of SFJ, my son Ryan wrote of the central prominence of a barn in any horse powered farm operation. I would expand that to say that a well thought out, functional barn should be the center piece of any farming endeavor, horse powered or fossil fueled, that involves livestock. Although we do not use draft animals, my wife and I do have a small farm on which we raise and house a variety of animals. Our small, efficient barn is indeed the hub of all farm activity. After building and using two previous barns during our lifetimes, I think the one we now have has achieved a level of convenience, efficiency, and economy that is worth passing on. It could easily handle additional needs with a modest expansion. As is, it functions well.

Here’s the design and some thoughts on our small barn. It was easy and low-cost to build, and after three years of use pretty much meets our needs and expectations. The plan is simple and easily enlarged or modified to fulfill a variety of uses. I make no claim to the design being novel, unique, or necessarily my own; it’s just the end result of many years of using barns that almost worked.

An Efficient Economical Barn

Requirements: We needed a place to store eight tons or so of baled hay, grains and horse tack, provide shelter from high elevation Wyoming winters for two or three saddle horses, house a dozen or so laying hens, a pig or two, and provide a place to milk a cow. It handles all of these chores with flying colors as well as providing a tie stall to saddle a couple of horses out of the rain and snow. At 24’ X 24’ it is about the minimum size needed to accomplish this. Though the barn is not large enough to deal with full sized draft horses; it could easily be enlarged to do so. It cost less than $5,000 to build in 2007.

Construction: The basic structure is a standard pole barn. Pressure treated 4x4s are set three feet deep in concrete. They rise 18” above the loft floor, giving us a short pony wall to bear the load of the rafters and provide increased storage and headroom. Paired 2X6s, bolted to the posts, support the 9” engineered joists. Loft joists are full span @16” OC with a doubled, 2X12 center support beam and 3?4” OSB (oriented strand board), tongue and groove flooring. With careful stacking, this floor/loft will hold up to ten tons of small bales with room for hay drop access. Side post spans are a maximum of eight feet, and end spans are twelve. Larger barns, perhaps with longer spans, would require heavier framing. Purlins on the sides are 2x4s with 2×4 sway braces. Carriage bolts or lag screws secure all lower structural members. Although I have worked as a journeyman carpenter and built this pretty much by myself with some help, its construction is simple and straightforward enough that anyone handy enough to farm can easily put it together. My two sons, both top hands with a hammer, helped me frame the loft floor and roof, and a friend helped with the roofing.

Rafters are site cut 2x10s set at a 10 in 12 pitch, selected to match our house as well as provide headroom and a classic appearance. The loft precludes the use of manufactured trusses, although those with the financial means could certainly use them with a loft space built in. Metal roofing, over 2×4 purlins, was installed by two of us on one fine, early summer morning. It sheds our winter snows easily. The floor, except for the coop and tack room, is road base gravel.

I used HardiePanel™ brand of concrete based siding for several reasons. Although very heavy, it resists rot from manure and moisture, looks halfway decent if not painted immediately, as the photos reveal, and comes in ten foot lengths. It is a bit awkward to install and easily broken if not supported, but has lived up to expectations. There are a few problems that will be explained shortly. A “Masonite”™ type of 1’x4’ shingle siding adorns the gables. This matches the gables on our log home and is lightweight, easily cut, and simple for one person to install. The barn is built on a slight slope, so I held the siding level with the high side and filled in with 2×6 pressure treated lumber. Trim is 1×4, pre-primed Masonite™ type material.

Three of the four gates are home built and have stood up well; one pipe gate was an expedient. The chicken coop is insulated on all sides as well as top and bottom. 20 or more degrees below zero is not uncommon in our area. Flooring is 3?4” OSB with two layers of asphalt roofing felt topped with leftover, face down siding for moisture and manure resistance. Interior walls are 7/16” OSB. 2x6s on a 2” in 7’ slope are used on the floor of the tie stall. This area could easily be utilized for an overnight tie area.

Cost: Here we go with the nitty-gritty. I can’t say exactly how much this barn cost, as we were beginning a new house as the structure was reaching completion; some of the materials were intermingled. If I needed an eight foot 2×6 for a concrete form for the house I bought a sixteen footer, used the extra eight feet on the barn, and then used the leftover end after using it to make the forms. I also used odds and ends of “stuff” I had lying around, but not much. An after the fact inventory and cost analysis put the price at about $4,500. No hired labor was used, and I ran the wiring myself. The insulated chicken coop door was a lumber yard mistake that I picked up for next to nothing; windows are cheap, vinyl, double pane sliders, and the barn has yet to be painted. The breaker box/electrical feed is not included, as it is the master panel that feeds our house and serves our well pump, nor is the cost of running a water line and freeze-less hydrant for stock water.

What works? The basic design has proven sound, albeit a wee bit small. We raise a pair of pigs in one stall every summer, leaving the other stall open for other uses. Our horses generally pasture elsewhere during the warmer months, and there are rarely more than two in the corral at any time during the summer months.

The coop also works well, although we have to find an alternate home for new birds in the interim between downy chicks and nearly adult birds. Up to 16 layers are easily housed and the outside run is handily accessible. I’m very glad that I insulated it well.

A short wall separates the tie stall from the alleyway, not only dividing the area but serving as a buttress on the off side of the milk cow. The short alley is handy for cornering smaller critters to doctor or put halters on.

There are three hay drop openings in the loft floor. One is over the manger in the tie stall, the others are over the loafing stalls. These have proven very handy, especially in winter.

What doesn’t work? Very little. Almost everything that doesn’t is a result of design error and could easily be corrected. The hay drop above the tack room side stall is in the far corner. It’s awkward to get at, and access to it eats up considerable storage room. This is a direct result of my unclear instructions to my sons during construction and could be changed without a great deal of trouble. I sometimes think the gate on the other stall would be handier if I would re-hang it to change the hinge side, but probably won’t ever get around to it.

Occasionally, I wish for wider openings (skid steer size) in the stalls and main area, although that would really eat up space on a barn this small. As it is, the stalls are easily mucked out by hand as long as I keep after it. This very fact, I must remind myself, helps slow down the pace of life; it often makes me ponder Wendell Berry’s admonition: “Steady work quiets the mind.” It would also be handy to have a stairway to the loft rather than a ladder, although this would also eat up more room than I wish to spare.

Concrete based siding is quite heavy and easily broken. I foresaw this in the stalls and provided 2×4 and 2×6 backing in potential kick areas. Never the less, a mare kicked a perfect, hoof shaped hole in the wall outside the tie stall. A wainscot of pressed board siding on that side should address the problem. This material, although not as rot resistant as the other siding, has greater flexibility and impact survival. Originally, I used galvanized, ring shank gun nails on the sides but have added roofing screws with washers as a concession to Wyoming winds. Except for tacking the panels in place, I would recommend using screws and washers of some sort. Snow from the roof falls in front of the alley doorway and is somewhat of a nuisance, but there are few options, short of a gable, to remedy this. I just live with it.

A few closing thoughts: When I was growing up it seemed that most barns were either very large, classic, Great Basin dairy barns or ramshackle affairs built of palettes, used plywood, and war surplus materials. Many just didn’t seem to work. This is the third pole barn I’ve designed and built in the last 25 years, and is by far the most successful.

The loft works very well, but I do have a hay elevator to lift the bales. Absent an elevator, I suppose one could install a block and tackle arrange- ment. Allowances for this could be easily framed into the roof structure. Loose hay could be pitched up from a wagon without an extraordinary (!?) amount of work.

As with many things in life, larger would be nice. Expansion in length, rather than width, would be easiest and most cost effective, although either would certainly be an option. At some point in the near future it needs a coat of paint, a loft door, and window shutters.

After three years of use our barn is taking on its own personae. Cobwebs adorn the corners, Robins return each year to nest on the center beam, Barn Swallows have taken up residence, a couple of stray cats hang around in the winter, and the sun shines bright through the east side on a mountain summer morn. Early every day, when Sadie, our goofy Labradoodle and I open the gate to do the chores, the hay dust sparkles in the light; barn smells evoke pleasant memories of distant summers, and Lilly, our Dexter cow noisily announces the need for her breakfast barley. I am pleased that something is right in this world.

An Efficient Economical Barn

An Efficient Economical Barn