Assessing Your Facilities for Safety and Serviceability

A very simplistic definition of the Second Law of Thermodynamics states that everything goes from "order to disorder". This is very true when it comes to farm buildings! In this article I want to describe how to assess your beef buildings for future use. A lot can be learned by doing a systematic visual inspection of your buildings in a common sense approach.

You should assess your building in two major areas:

  1. Safety - Is the building structurally sound?
  2. Serviceability - Will it still perform the function that it was intended to?

Let's look at the following components while asking these two questions.

Posts & Trusses

First, look at how the basic structure is holding up - the posts and trusses. Examine the support posts. Have they been sitting in manure unprotected? Are they starting to rot, or has their diameter even been reduced by livestock chewing or constant wear from machinery operation? The other obvious thing is mechanical damage. Has a post been knocked out of alignment by a loader tractor or worse still, cracked or broken?

What about the trusses? Have any of the bottom chords (the horizontal truss segments closest to the floor) been broken by moving big bales with a loader? One broken bottom chord may not make a significant difference at the moment, as trusses are designed to work as a unit with those next to it. However, if two adjacent ones are broken or bottom chords are broken on several trusses, they need to be repaired. Don't forget about the single one either. Repairing it now will prevent a major problem developing in the future.

The other important items to inspect with roof trusses are the gusset plates (the flat pieces of metal which sandwich joints between truss members), especially the peak gusset plates if there is an open ridge (Figure 1).

Photo of gusset plates deteriorate with moisture and time.

Figure 1. Gusset plates deteriorate with moisture and time.

Beef barns need to ventilate, and that heat and humidity is usually exhausted up through an open ridge and out of the building. This means that this warm humid air will all pass over the gusset plate at the peak. Over time this can lead to severe deterioration in the gusset plates. Even though the wood can still be sound, if the connections let go the trusses can fail and lead to roof collapse. Alternatively, depending on the age of the building and how much moisture has accumulated in the truss area, the wood around the gusset plates may be affected by constant moistening and drying, and the connection between the truss members and the gusset plates may become weak.

There is also recent interest in putting solar panels on south facing beef barn roofs. The roof will not have been initially designed for the extra weight of the solar panels and the truss strength needs to be evaluated by an engineer. This is something that cannot be done by a routine visual inspection.

Electrical

It is also very important to evaluate the electrical system from a safety point of view. One of the major causes of barn fires is the failure of the electrical system, either by poor connections that overheat, or a variety of other electrical problems. Problems with electrical circuits are not as easy to determine visually as some structural issues. Some insurance companies offer thermographic inspections to determine if hot spots are occurring in the electrical system. It is important to visually inspect for rodent damage or dust and dirt build up near lighting fixtures or service panels that could lead to overheating or short circuits. The humidity in a beef barn will cause electrical components to deteriorate over time, similar to its effect on the structure. It is especially important to periodically inspect service panels to make sure the grounds are still in place and the components are working properly. This is best done by a qualified electrician.

Manure Storage

Many slatted-floor beef barns were constructed in the mid to late 1970's and early 1980's. These barns are now 30 years old or more, and even though they may have been well built at the time, manure acids and gases are quite corrosive. Manure acids will eat away at the concrete causing it to deteriorate and possibly flake off (Figure 2).

Photo of Slats, beams and posts deteriorate when exposed to manure gases.

Figure 2. Slats, beams and posts deteriorate when exposed to manure gases.

Over time, manure gases can seep through concrete and start to corrode the reinforcing steel. This causes the steel to rust and expand causing the concrete around it to crack which allows more manure gases to enter, and the cycle goes on. These actions will affect not only the slats on the floor, but also the post and beams supporting them.

The slats may look fine from the top surface, but may be deteriorating underneath. An inspection should be done by an engineer if there are signs of deterioration. This needs to be done from underneath and precautions need to be taken when entering a confined space like a manure storage, or even removing a section of slats and trying to look underneath. A self contained breathing apparatus is necessary to avoid the risk of breathing manure gas.

Insulation

There are items that are not safety hazards but will affect how well the building functions. One of these is insulation. Most beef barns have very little insulation. If they do, it is usually a minimal amount of insulation under the roof steel. If insulation is not protected by minimizing bird perching areas or by bird screen, it will become damaged over time (Figure 3).

Photo of damage by birds and rodents to unprotected insulation

Figure 3. Birds and rodents will damage unprotected insulation.

Rodents will also damage insulation. If insulation under the roof steel becomes damaged, the effect to the inside environment may not be that noticeable as the insulation may still reduce condensation under certain conditions. However, some insulation is designed to act as vapour barrier, and once it is damaged moisture will pass through it and accumulate between the insulation and the steel roofing. This moisture accelerates the deterioration of the roof steel.

Flooring

Flooring may become slippery over time due to scraping with scraper blades or front-end loaders. It is possible to improve traction by grooving the floors in a diamond pattern or milling the floor surface.

Feeding

Silage acids will eat away at the concrete in feed mangers. If the concrete becomes pitted to the point that feed begins to spoil in the pitted area, feed intake may be reduced. The manger will also become difficult to clean. There are several types of epoxy coatings that can be used to repair the concrete surfaces. If new mangers are being poured, there are additives that can be added to the concrete mix to make it more durable. There are also high-strength concrete mixes that can be used.

Ventilation

Good ventilation is not only important for the health of your cattle, but also for the health of your building. If moisture is not removed from your building, it will lead not only to the rusting of the roof steel, but also the rusting of truss gusset plates. Both can greatly weaken the roof structure. Ventilation curtains need to be replaced periodically when they become damaged. If your barn was built before adjustable curtains were common, you may be using individual doors that open and close to adjust ventilation rates. If this is the case, you can greatly improve ventilation by opening up the wall continuously and installing adjustable curtains. This will not only allow more air when needed, but you will be able to make adjustments easier.

Summary

Beef barns don't last forever. A systematic visual inspection will help you identify areas that need maintenance before they become big problems. Some issues are safety issues and need to be addressed immediately. Others affect the function of the building, and although they can be left unattended for a period of time, they may eventually affect your profitability. Assess your facilities regularly and address problems as they arise!

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