Repurposing the retired dairy barn or freestall shed

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
The possibilities are endless for dairy barns, from raising newborn calves to working beef cattle.

Driving along the country roads, one will notice plenty of empty barns or freestall sheds.  These buildings can be empty from someone retiring from dairy farming or upgrading farm facilities. There are a few options on still using the facilities if you plan to continue raising animals. 

Retrofitting an unused building currently on the farm can be a great way to save some money.  However, just because a dairy barn or freestall shed was well suited for dairy cows it might not work for raising calves or beef production. 

The possibilities are endless for dairy barns, from raising newborn calves to working beef cattle.  Individual stalls can be retrofitted into individual calf pens. Stalls can also be taken out to create group pens for calves or calving maternity pens. Stall barns can also be retrofitted into handling facilities for beef production. However, there should be some caution when considering retrofitting these barns. 

Sometimes these barns can have limiting factors such as ceiling height, gutters, posts, water pipes, and ventilation.  Some of these obstacles may be changeable, at a cost, while some are non-negotiable. Evaluate the structures condition before deciding to invest in retro-fitting it.

The possibilities are endless for dairy barns, from raising newborn calves to working beef cattle.

When creating individual calf pens, the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association’s Gold Standard is to allow enough room for the calf to turn around. It is also recommended to keep a walkway approximately 3 feet wide from the outside wall of the barn.  An optimal calf pen would have solid side panels and open paneling in the front and back. Ideally a side panel could be removed if you decide to try pair housing. 

One of the most important aspects is to think about the ventilation in the barn. Producers need to be able to deliver enough fresh air which helps reduce airborne bacterial counts. Recommended ventilation rates for young calves vary with ambient temperatures, with a minimum of four air changes per hour in cold weather. In hot weather, closer to 40 air changes per hour may be necessary.

Stalls can also be taken out and posts utilized to create calving pens or holding pens. Individual maternity pens should have a bedded area of at least 12 feet by 12 feet and at least 144 square feet in total area. A headlock could be put into one corner of the pen for ease of handling when rapid assistance is needed. They should also have a gate that can help capture the animal if needed. 

Pens should be large enough for someone to walk behind the cow and use a calving aid.  Water should be located at the opposite side of the pen away from bedding. Other features to consider are a support structure in case a cow needs to be lifted, and a vacuum line for bucket milking to quickly harvest colostrum. These types of pens are used for just-in time calving and having a feed area is optional. 

Stall barns can also be retrofitted into handling facilities for beef production.

Depending on how wide your barn is, they can also be great for working beef cattle. Low stress animal handling should be considered when converting a barn to a working area for beef cattle. Designs should consider areas for loading/unloading, handling chutes, aisles, sorting gate, and holding pens. 

These facilities do not have to be fancy to be effective, but should ensure the basics of incorporating good footing, good lighting, and that no sharp or protruding objects are present that could injure cattle. Remember to think about safety and comfort for both the animal and worker.

Empty freestall sheds can also be utilized for raising heifers, steers, or beef cattle. The Dairyland Initiative website is a great resource for finding information on stall dimensions for raising heifers. It is not recommended that heifers under 400 pounds be kept in freestalls. Inappropriately sized stalls can injure animals that might be oversized for the stall. Depending on budget, freestalls can also be removed to create a bedding pack. 

If you are looking for more information, check out the Dairyland Initiative website. It is a great source of information on sizing of pens, ventilation, feed and water requirements from birth all the way up to milking cows. Dave Kammel, who is retired from the Biological Systems Engineering department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has great resources online for those looking to retrofit dairy barns into beef housing.

Jackie McCarville

Jackie McCarville is a dairy educator with University of Wisconsin Extension for Grant, Green, Iowa, and Lafayette counties.

Extension University of Wisconsin-Madison