Dairy housing: developing the plan and procuring services and materials for constructing a new dairy barn


Source: Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs

Written by: Harold K. House

Developing a Plan

The procedure for developing a plan (Figure 1), procuring services and materials, and overseeing construction can be made as formal or informal as you want, depending on your time, extra help on your farm, comfort level, experience and training. Remember that any time you spend on planning, contracting and construction is time you must take away from some other activity on the farm or from your personal life. There are many different ways to approach a building project. There is no single right way, and in the end, most producers use a combination of approaches to complete their project.

Figure 1. Schematic drawing of a floor plan for free-stall dairy barn, showing stall, alleyway and milk area locations.

Figure 1. One example of a free-stall floor plan.

Some of the more common approaches are:

  • Hire a Design Consultant – A design consultant could be an individual that has a strong background in dairy management and can work along with you to develop a functional layout or it could be a team of consultants that could include your veterinarian, nutritionist and others that you trust to give advice.
  • Hire a Consulting Engineer – A consulting engineer may be able to help you with the functional and operational design as well as structural and other parts of the project, such as permitting. A consulting engineer may be able to take the floor plan developed by you and your consultant and provide the structural design that is needed by the municipality for approvals.
  • Use a Design, Bid, Build Approach – Another approach, more similar to commercial buildings would be to develop a layout, have an engineer provide a structural design and specifications, then submit the design and specifications to several general contractors that could do a good job on the project. This way all the general contractors are bidding on exactly the same design and specifications and you should be able to compare prices on an “apples-to-apples” basis.

A slight variation to this approach would be to bid major parts of the design, like the milking equipment, separate from the rest of the project.

  • Use a Design and Build Contractor – The most common approach is to use a design and build contractor, someone who can take your initial layout and provide the rest of the services. The contractor may have a large enough operation that there is an engineer on staff to do the structural work, or there may be an engineer they usually use. This could be the case with many of the components. The main contractor may have tradespeople that can do the concrete work, wiring, plumbing or may hire subcontractors to do the specialty work.

In this approach, you may have to have several companies quoting on your layout with very little additional information, because a final design hasn’t been completed. You have to be more careful with this approach so you are not comparing “apples and oranges.” Your cost control may not be as tight as the design, bid, build process, because the final design has not been completed.

  • Use the Owner as the General Contractor – Another variation is to take on the bulk of the work yourself. You could act as the general contractor and take on the responsibility of having the design work done, hiring all the contractors and overseeing the construction. If you want to be more involved in the process and save some money, consider this option. You will have to ask yourself some hard questions, which are discussed in detail later.
  • Hire a Project Manager – If the owner does not have time or is not confident in his or her ability to keep on top of the project, an option that could be used with any of the approaches is to hire a project manager. This needs to be someone you can trust, who understands what you want and is someone you can communicate with.

Should I be the General Contractor?

This is a question many producers ask. As a producer, you are used to having control over your own operation and may feel it would not be too difficult to extend this control to your building project. You may be the type of person that enjoys a challenge and wants to make sure that the project is done according to your own specifications. Being the general contractor and doing your own planning, hiring and supervision may save you money, but it takes time. Will you need to hire someone else to look after the dairy while you go through the process, and will that person be able to manage as well as you?

This is a difficult decision to make. Before you do, talk to producers who have been through similar projects. Talk about what they did and how they went about doing it. What went well and why, what didn’t go well and why? Would they take the same approach again, why or why not? Talk to others who know your temperament, strengths and weaknesses – do they think it’s a good idea? Do your spouse and family think it’s a good idea?

Some of the pros and cons identified by producers are:


  • You have a more in-depth understanding of facility design and function.
  • You’d have only yourself to blame.
  • You’d be forced to hire great cow people in your place.
  • You’d have tighter control of results.


  • This would be a huge time commitment.
  • Doing this may not be within your abilities.
  • Being the general contractor may distract from running the rest of the dairy operation.
  • You might get caught up in managing details that aren’t really significant.

Communication, Negotiation and Confrontation

If you don’t have good communication skills at the start of your project, they will have improved by the end. You need to communicate (talk and listen) to designers, contractors and builders to get the project done the way you want. It is also important to know how to negotiate – to give and take to get what you want done. This is very true when you get to the hiring process. You may need to trade time for price. You will also need to develop confrontation skills. This doesn’t have to have a negative meaning; what are you going to do when you see something that isn’t done the way you want it? What is the best way to approach the situation, and get it corrected?

It is important to have a contact or “go-to” person for each component of the project. If you have a question or concern, you can quickly get to the right person. Appendix 1 outlines the major components of a project, with space for identifying your “go-to” people. Keep it readily available, so you won’t lose it or forget who does what.

Project Phases

The process of planning and building a new facility can be divided into a number of phases. There is no exact formula for these divisions. You could argue that there should be more phases or you may wish to subdivide them into smaller projects. Generally you will need to consider the following:

Developing the Plan

After farmstead planning is complete you will need to develop a plan for the actual facility with the aid of a dairy consultant, a team of consultants or a consulting engineer. Appendix 2 is a checklist that can help you decide on the options you want for the major barn features. You can also use this checklist when you are visiting other farms and you want to remember what features they have.


There are always permits that need to be submitted, from zoning changes to manure management to building permits. Is this something you can do yourself, or is it best to let a consultant do it for you?

Arranging Finances

You will need to pay for this project. Financing is something you will have to negotiate with your lending institution or financial manager. They may ask you to develop a short-term and a long-term business plan, to prove the project will have cash-flow.

Design and Specifications

The structural design will have to be done by a professional engineer. The specifications may require a lot of detail if you are tendering and want to get competitive quotes. If it is a design-build project, the specification list may not be as detailed. The more you have down on paper, the more chance you have of getting exactly what you want.

Tendering and Hiring

The tender process does not have to be that formal. You should be confident that you are comparing “apples with apples, and oranges with oranges” when comparing prices. Are you confident in handling the hiring process? Would you rather have someone else do it? If you take the design and construction approach, you will not be faced with as many decisions.

Figure 2. Roof trusses of a barn under construction.

Figure 2. A barn under construction.

Construction and Project Management

The construction phase of the project can be the most challenging part (Figure 2). This is where you make sure that your vision and plan are being implemented. As we have discussed, you may act as the general contractor, you may hire a project manager or you may leave it up to the design-and-build contractor. In all cases, it will require real communication between you and the building contractor to ensure the job gets done.

This communication may take the form of a formal meeting once a week or every day, at the start of the day. But you need regular communication, and it may have to be more frequent during certain parts of the project. There is a balance between good communication and interference or micro-management. It is your project, so you have the final say, but if you have hired good people, they are professionals and may have suggestions – things they have seen in other projects or others ways of doing something – that you may not be aware of. Let them do their job. If you see something you don’t like, you are the one that will have to live with it for a long time. Make sure it gets changed so you are not regretting it in the years to come.

Figure 3. Two dairy cows lying on sand bedding

Figure 3. Cows settled into a new barn.


Commissioning the project is something you may not have even thought about. Make sure, when you finalize the contract on different components that are new to you or complicated, that the price includes training. This is often an oversight. Most equipment suppliers may provide this as a service. Make sure you know how everything works before the contractors are gone. In the case of electronics, this may be too much information to absorb at once, so make sure they leave “simplified” or “quick start” instruction guides so you can be up and running as needed. For some equipment, it is a good idea to have this information laminated and mounted right beside the controls.

The other piece of “commissioning” that is often over-looked is cattle (Figure 3). Prepare the cows and prepare the barn to receive them. Don’t trim your cow’s feet and then send them into a barn with “green” concrete. Concrete should have at least a month to cure, and then it should be washed with a neutralizing agent before the cows are moved. Better still, spread some of your cows’ manure in the alleys so the barn doesn’t smell so “new” or “strange” to your cows when they first go in. It is also a good idea to run the manure scraper system or tractor-scrape the alleys several times to remove any sharp concrete edges. Spreading bedding on the alleys may also be a good idea, but not to the point that cows find the alleys comfortable enough to lay in.


The following are some definitions commonly used in the design and construction of a building:

  • Plans – Plans show all necessary dimensions and details for construction. A floor plan and cross-section of the barn should be considered as minimal. Municipalities will likely want foundation plans and structural details, as well.
  • Specifications – Specifications support the plans and describe the materials to be used, including size and quality, and often outline procedures for construction and quality of workmanship.
  • Contract – The contract is an agreement between the builder or equipment supplier, and the owner. It includes such things as the price, schedule of payments, guarantees, responsibilities, change orders, and starting and completion days.
  • Owner – “You” – The company or individual that the building is being designed and constructed for.
  • General Contractor – Contractors who enter into a contract directly with the owner are called prime contractors or general contractors, as they may do a variety of things.
  • Subcontractor – Subcontractors are contractors that contract to do work for the general contractor. These are specialty contractors, who may look after such things as the concrete work, ventilation or electrical.
  • Project Manager – An individual hired by the owner to manage the entire construction project.
  • Construction Manager – An individual hired by the owner to manage the actual construction.


Time spent on planning is never wasted. It is easier to move components on paper than to try to rearrange concrete when it has hardened. Hiring people who know their business and who you can trust will make the job easier and result in a completed project will serve you well.


Bickert, W.G., et al. 2000. Dairy Freestall Housing and Equipment. 7th edition. MWPS-7. Midwest Plan Service. Iowa State University. Ames, IA.

Holmes, B.J. 2000. Responsibilities in Constructing New Facilities, Dairy Housing and Equipment Systems: Managing and Planning for Profitability. Harrisburg, PA. NRAES – 129 pg. 72-80.

Kammel, D.W., and D.R. Bohnhoff. 1998. Developing Preliminary Specifications for Agricultural Buildings. ASAE Annual International Meeting, Orlando, FL.

Kulp, P. 2003. Should I Be the General Contractor? Building Freestall Barns and Milking Centres: Methods and Materials. Harrisburg, PA. NRAES – 148 pg. 430-434.

Royer, T.R. 2003. Options for Construction Contracting, Building Freestall Barns and Milking Centres: Methods and Materials. Harrisburg, PA. NRAES – 148 pg. 65-71.

This Factsheet was written by Harold K. House, P.Eng.

Appendix 1. Contact list

Responsibility Company Contact Phone #
Functional specifications
System design
Component design
Parlour/holding area
Parlour/holding area building
Milk house
Utility room
Cow free-stall housing
Special-needs housing
Manure storage/handling
Feed storage
Heifer/calf housing
Assist in developing permits for
Water quality
Air quality
Milk quality
Public hearing (if needed)
General contractor
Well driller
Concrete work
Free stalls, feed barrier, penning
Manure handling
Milking system/utilities
Parlour stalls/crowd gate
Feeding equipment
Electric power

Appendix 2. Free-stall barn features checklist

Date :________________________________________

Producer: _____________________________________

Address :_____________________________________


Phone/Fax: ___________________________________

E-mail :______________________________________

Emergency contact :_____________________________


___ 3-row

___ 4-row tail-to-tail

___ 4-row head-to-head

___ 6 row

___ compost bed pack

___ other ________________

# of stalls ________________

# cows milking ____________

length ___________________



___ aminated wooden beam

___ wood truss

___ steel frame

___ fabric-covered

___ other


___ pole frame in ground

___ pole frame on concrete wall

___ stud wall

___ steel frame

___ fabric-covered

___ other _____________________


___ no insulation

___ bubble

___ rigid board

___ blanket

___ sprayed-on

___ blown-in

___ batt

___ other

R-value ____________________________

Ceiling Covering

___ plywood

___ steel

___ fabrene

___ vinyl

___ fibreglass

Side wall ventilation

___ one-piece curtain

___ split curtain

___ inflatable curtain

___ clear rigid panel

___ insulated panel

___ other _________________

Ridge ventilation

___ open ridge

___ chimneys

___ light vent

___ overshot roof

___ other ____________________

Supplemental ventilation

___ basket or panel fans

___ HVLS fans

___ tunnel ventilation

___ other

Manure collection

___ tractor scrape

___ mech. scraper-cable drive

___ mech. scraper-chain drive

___ mech. scraper-hydraulic

___ tube scraper

___ flush system

___ slats – total pit

___ slats – raceway

___ other ______________________

transfer pit size __________________

robotic scraper __________________

Manure transfer

___ tractor scrape

___ gutter cleaner

___ box or shuttle scraper

___ gravity

___ hydraulic

___ centrifugal – electric

___ centrifugal – tractor

___ other ______________________

Stall base

___ deep-bedded sand

___ deep-bedded compost

___ concrete

___ rubber mats

___ mattresses

___ water beds

___ other _______________________

Stall bedding

___ sand

___ compost

___ chopped straw

___ sawdust

___ shavings

___ other ______________________

Stall partition and size

___ wide suspended

___ narrow suspended

___ flexible

___ other ___________________

width ______________________

length ______________________

distance to brisket lc ___________

height to neck rail _____________

Brisket locator

___ none

___ pipe

___ poly pillow

___ rounded concrete

___ other ____________________

Floor finish

___ concrete – no grooves

___ concrete – wet cast grooves

___ concrete – saw-cut grooves

___ continuous rubber

___ interlocking pieces

___ other ___________________

Barn lighting

___ incandescent

___ fluorescent

___ LED

___ mercury vapour

___ metal halide

___ high-pressure sodium

___ induction

___ other __________________

over feed alley _______________

over stalls __________________

wattage ____________________

Feeding system

___ centre drive-through

___ perimeter drive-through

___ mechanical feed bunk

___ other ______________________

width _________________________

Feed barrier

___ self-locks

___ post and rail

___ slant bar

___ flexible bars

___ other _________________

height ____________________

barrier ___________________

Manger surface

___ concrete

___ concrete with hardener

___ epoxy coating

___ ceramic tile

___ sunken

___ barricade

___ other ______________________

width _________________________


___ low energy

___ tip tank

___ other

Parlour type

___ herringbone

___ parallel

___ swing

___ flat

___ robotic

___ other __________________

stalls _____________________

company __________________

Parlour features

___ basement

___ adjustable floor

___ automation

___ other ____________________

Parlour lighting

___ fluorescent

___ LED

___ HID

___ other ___________________

Parlour heat

___ none

___ space heater

___ radiant tube

___ hot water floor heating

___ other ______________________

Holding area

___ alleys as holding area

___ separate holding area

floor surface ___________________

___ no crowd gate

___ flexible crowd gate

___ rigid crowd gate

___ other ____________________

size _________________________

slope ________________________

Maternity & treatment area

___ pens in free-stall barn

___ pens in separate area

___ automatic sorting

___ other _____________________

Feed storage

___ pile

___ ag bags

___ tower silos

___ bunker silos

___ other _____________________

sizes _________________________

Manure storage

___ earthen storage

___ open top concrete

___ open top steel

___ slatted floor

___ other ____________________

fencing ______________________

size ________________________



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