Facilities for beef cattle

The phone rings and the question is, "I want to build a new barn for my beef cows, are there any new designs? The Canada Plan Service plans date back 30 + years."

The observation that beef barn design has not changed much is somewhat true. There are new fabric barns, and new flooring discussions, but the basic principles remain the same.

A better question to start with might be, "if I am starting a beef operation, what facilities do I need to look after my animals?" Sorting out the type of farm you want, and the production system you will employ, will determine what you need for facilities.

Beef Farmers of Ontario conducted an extensive study last year as they looked at what a start-up beef operation would require for land, machinery and facilities. Long discussions with farmers, advisory staff, and economists considered a wide range of options.

With a beef cow/calf operation, three critical care points are easily identifiable: calving, health treatments and weaning. In Ontario, our weather determines how elaborate our calving facility needs to be. Traditional calving during the winter months requires some type of barn to protect the newborn calves from the elements, and typically include a heat source of some kind. The BFO model looks at working with nature and the seasons, with calving on grass during the summer months. This eliminates the need for a heat source, and a specific calving barn.

Treating animals for health reasons requires an excellent handling system. Under the Beef Code of Practice it is critical to handle cattle safely and humanely. The BFO model builds in a facility for handling livestock in a safe manner.

At weaning time, calves experience stress as they are separated from their mothers. This stress can be reduced using the Fence line and Two-Step weaning methods as outlined in previous Virtual Beef articles.

The BFO model found that the optimum number of cows was around 250, and would need about 2500 acres of land. What did the BFO model indicate as an absolute requirement for facilities to look after these animals?

The first building is a simple open fronted pole shed, 30' X 100', or in that size range, that would serve primarily as storage for high quality hay. Wastage from dry hay stored outside without cover can be extensive. Storing some high quality dry hay under cover would retain quality, plus allow for hay that could be accessed in the middle of winter if it is stormy. The secondary purpose of this facility would be for sick pens and a weaning area as the hay is fed out. See Diagram 1 or follow this link for plans for such a building.

The second building would be a covered handling facility, approximately 30' X 30'. This would house the crowd tub, working chute and squeeze for restraining livestock for treatment purposes.

Where do the cows spend the winter if there is no barn for them? The BFO model uses windbreaks and bedded pack dry lots for housing the cows. Cows need shelter from wind, more than from rain or snow. By using tree lines and groves for cover, cows can get out of the wind. If they are out of the wind, cold can be managed by the animal's internal metabolism.

Using existing trees or planting trees for windbreaks is the cheapest option for keeping cows sheltered from the elements. By bale grazing and feeding out on pasture, manure can be spread as the cows eat, supplying soil with nutrients and organic matter. In the absence of trees, portable wind breaks could be used. Some examples are pictured.

For more traditional dry lots, both Western Canada and Northwest Quebec ranches use wooden windbreaks to block their wintering sites from the wind.

Things to consider in locating a dry lot include:

  • raised area for bedded pack
  • sufficient slope to direct runoff to proper location
  • windbreak for shelter
  • feeding area (preferably with paved surface)
  • Adjacent alley ways (for sorting livestock into different areas, feed and manure handling equipment, etc.)
  • Sufficient distance from surface water, wells, neighbours, etc.
  • Proper site preparation so water from the roofs of adjacent buildings and overland flow of field runoff does not enter livestock yard area.

*from fact sheet 720/400. Managing Outdoor Confinement Areas and Livestock Yards, by Christoph Wand and Peter Doris

Table 1. Beef animal space requirements1,2

Type of housing
Area per animal (square ft/hd)
Cows and Bred Heifers
(750 lbs)
(500 lbs)
Earth lot without mound
Earth lot with bedded mound (bedded mound area)
300 (35)
250 (30)
150 (25)
Paved lot

1 Beef Housing and Equipment Handbook, Midwest Plan Service. https://www-mwps.sws.iastate.edu/catalog/livestock-operations/beef
2 Beef Cattle Housing and Feedlot Facilities. http://www.agriculture.gov.sk.ca/beef_cattle_housing

Dry bedded mounds inside the windbreaks allow the cows a place to stay dry as well as out of the wind. Keep the bedded mounds away from feeding and watering areas. Rectangular shaped mounds are easier to manage. Have good drainage around the mounds. A well-compacted soil base material is essential. The top should be rounded with a minimum height of 5 ft. (1.5 m) at the centre. Side slopes must be flat enough that cattle can easily walk to the top of the mound. Maximum side slopes of 1:4 are recommended.

Wood chips and straw can be used for bedding

  • Wood chips or shavings: 12.5 lb. /1000 lb. animal weight (1.25 kg/100 kg), applied once a week. Do not use wood products for bedding if the wood has been treated with preservatives.
  • Straw: 25 lb. /1000 lb. of animal weight (2.5 kg/100 kg), applied at least three times a week (preferably daily)

Machine sheds were identified as important under the BFO model to keep equipment out of the elements … the cattle actually keep better outside than the tractor does.

The facilities discussed in this article suit extensive beef production using summer calving and employ minimalist facilities.

Reference material

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