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barns: the heart of the farm

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If you’re in the Tennessee area, a  barn open house and Q & A session will be held on March 2, 2013 at the Broadened Horizons Teaching Farm in Rockwood, TN. To contact farmer leaf with farm related questions or comments, e-mail leaf@sustainability-teaching-farm.com The piece below was written by Farmer Leaf to accompany this session.  BARN #1

Above: A good example of truss construction. Interior painting brightens up the interior of the barn.

Nothing telegraphʼs a farmʼs status clearer than the condition of its barn. A good paint job on the exterior walls, combined with an intact, leak-proof roof, is usually a sign of overall farm prosperity. A well maintained barn also indicates how a farmer responds to meet the shelter needs of the farm livestock and the farm equipment. A well organized and efficiently run barn provides multiples services and benefits and helps a farmer maximize the potential for making a profit.

As in my pond construction work, I also hold some very strong ideas about what constitutes a good barn. The very first consideration is location. A poorly placed barn is an overall liability, not a seamless asset. I have advised clients to remove existing poor quality barn structures and use the salvaged lumber to rebuild away from wet springs and drainages, or to place the structure more conveniently (efficiently) in the center of the daily ongoing farm activity. It should be accessible in all types of weather, not cut off by flooded waterways, snow drifts or long distance.
BARN #4

Above: A view of the 75% restored barn’s south wall showing the profusion of window lights.

A barn should have well placed windows, especially south-facing clear lights, in the upper roof area. Building a barn without windows is like building a car without headlights. In neither case will you be able to see sufficiently under low-light conditions. Windows also brighten up the stall interiors, making animals feel less cutoff when inside. Stalls should be large, airy and with plenty of headroom. No homestead milking stall should be without sufficient south-facing windows to let in the first glimmers of wintertime daylight. That way the morning hand-milking can be done using natural-light conditions. Relying strictly on electric lighting to illuminate a barn interior seems shortsighted at best.

BARN #5Above: Another view of the rebuilt south facing barn wall which shows the poor condition of the original barn construction.

Unless you are farming with access to a lot (really a lot) of capital, it is unlikely you will purchase a farm or homestead with a decent standing barn. Here in Tennessee, outside of Amish Country, itʼs rare to see well thought out and well built barns standing in the countryside. Most existing barns in counties I have farmed in or traveled through, are lightless, dreary places with bad air on all but the sunniest and windiest days. Many of them are simply falling down or slipping back into the earth. Unpainted barns subject the bare wood to the unrelenting chronic forces of rain and sun induced structural damage.

Most old barn framing used post and beam construction. Twelve inch square posts reaching 2 stories tall formed the structural legs. Then came eight inch square cross connectors that formed the layout for holding up the loft, all braced with six inch square diagonal bracing. Most modern day pole barns are just anemic versions of the barns of yore. But here we are in 2013, and local saw mills with suitable timber stock are rare to nonexistent. How do we begin to repair these old structures with modern day building materials? The answer is to substitute trusses in place of large cross timbers.

A truss is simply a lightweight rigid framework designed to support heavy loads. Most commercial trusses are constructed from common two by fours, a low-cost building material that is readily available anywhere in the U.S. Building a truss is not a complicated process, and can be accomplished by anyone competent with a hammer. Trusses can be built either in place or off-site. Because of their light weight, two people can easily lift them into position. If one is working alone, it is easiest to build longer trusses in place and use C-clamps to hold it rigid while adding the struts.

The benefits of using 2“X4” wooden trusses are multiple. Trusses are lightweight yet very strong and they donʼt sag under heavy weight-loading. They are dimensionally stable and donʼt warp or twist out of shape. They are low cost to build, and tie the support beams together with more contact fastening points than a cross timber. They add character and a look of strength to any barn interior. A truss has a top and bottom plate which are connected with a repetitive series of diagonal and vertical struts. The struts are made from short pieces of material two to four feet long. Free 2”X4” cutoff scraps at a construction site or home remodeling project can easily provide the strut material. The long horizontal pieces are harder to find and may have to be purchased.

The final area that completes a good barn is the floor. The floor where animals walk and stand and lie down on should be a clay dominant soil. The best clay floor is made from newly dug pond bottom material (tightness) and can be spread by hand and trowel. As the clay dries and shrinks, new clay is applied over the old to fill in the cracks. Also as it dries out, it should be compressed. We lay plywood down and have our cows stand on it after we deem the clay thick enough. After compression, a final drying period and then the floor is ready for full use. Floors should slope to a stall corner in the outer wall and be equipped with a formal drain such as a rigid pipe. It is important to be able to catch the nutrient-rich liquid slop coming out of that drain to use as fertilizer away from the immediate barn area.

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