News/Media | Duane Ambrosius discusses dairy building trends

Duane Ambrosius discusses dairy building trends

Oct. 28, 2013

In order to gain a better understanding of what building projects are taking place on dairies, Progressive Dairyman reached out to contractors across the country to learn what is trending in terms of number of projects, costs and general producer preferences.

Providing responses were Duane Ambrosius, agriculture sales manager, Bayland Buildings in east-central Wisconsin; Michael Bingham, project manager, Westec Construction Inc. in southern Idaho; Tom Jackson, district sales manager, Wick Buildings in southern Wisconsin, northern Illinois and northeast Iowa; and Don Richards, Homer office manager, Fingerlakes Construction in central New York.

Are you seeing more, less or the same number of building projects now compared to the last five-year average?

AMBROSIUS: The interest in building is equal to or stronger than the past few years. However, there is a slightly different trend. Five years ago, there were a lot of greenfield and expansion projects for herds of 200 to 1,000 cows.

Now there are a lot more larger projects gearing farms up to milk 3,000 cows. Carousels seem to be the parlor of choice for those farms, but we’re also seeing a lot of people interested in robots.

BINGHAM: This year we’re seeing a little more than in the past five years.

JACKSON: We’ve been building less this year due to weather. Dairy producers have come to us looking to expand. They were hoping the crops would be better and are now holding off on building in anticipation they will have to buy feed.

RICHARDS: We are doing less dairy construction this year than what we have seen in the past.

What are the predominant building projects you are doing on dairies?

AMBROSIUS: We’ve been building a lot of milking centers as farmers are focused on multiplying cow numbers. Once a farm reaches their full mature cow number, the next thing they are interested in is bringing their heifers home.

BINGHAM: We’ve been building freestalls, additions and converted a bedded-pack barn to freestalls. Projects have ranged in capacity from 600 to 1,200 head. There have also been some ventilation projects and some commodity projects to minimize feed shrink. We’ve added some corrals but have not done any new parlor projects this year.

JACKSON: Calf housing, robotic dairies and a few freestall additions. We’ve given pricing on a number of projects, but those producers are holding off until spring.

RICHARDS: Freestall barns, milking centers, special needs and dry cow barns, and heifer barns.

Do you see a trend toward higher-cost or lower-cost building investments?

AMBROSIUS: Five to 20 years ago, the industry was focused on producing milk cheaply with less overhead as producers looked to abandon tiestall facilities and upsize to freestalls and parlors.

Now that they have those larger facilities, we’re seeing dairy producers go back and add items like power ventilation and manure-handling systems that require power. Producers are focusing on cow comfort and cow cleanliness to get a greater return through higher milk yields.

BINGHAM: Dairy producers want to build as efficiently as possible. They want a good product, and they want it at a fair price. Some customers are willing to spend above and beyond to increase longevity.

JACKSON: Producers building robotic milking facilities are spending more on equipment, but the cost of the building is less.

RICHARDS: The buildings are fairly modest, especially the heifer barns. For milking centers, producers are aiming more state-of-the-art because the technology changes every day. Facilities for production cows and the milking centers tend to be higher investments, yet remain efficient.

When calculating building cost on a per-stall basis, what do you include in that price?

AMBROSIUS: We put together the complete package for our customers. We self-perform the concrete work, building, and freestall and headlock installation.

We don’t do electrical, plumbing or large amounts of excavating, but we want producers to look at us as the general contractor, and we’re involved in every step from the day the project starts.

BINGHAM: That varies for each project depending on what will be done. We don’t typically install milking equipment, but we do include lighting and ventilation.

JACKSON: Typically, we’ll factor the building costs and the equipment companies will take care of the rest.

For example, on a recent calf building, we put up the structure, but the producer served as the general contractor and lined up the excavating, concrete, curtains, ventilation, electrical and plumbing. In total, the producer said he spent $22 per square foot on the 60-foot-by-300-foot calf building.

RICHARDS: That is really up to the dairyman and what he or she wants us to do. Many times we’re just building the shell of the building and they are serving as the general contractor.

What length of time is the average farm building expected to last?

AMBROSIUS: This is one of the things we really focus on. We design with steel and masonry so the facility is not going to deteriorate. It will require some upkeep over the years, but we don’t put up a building that is going to fall apart. I intend for parts of our buildings to still be standing 100 years from now.

BINGHAM: There is always some maintenance needed in time. Ceilings will last for eight to 12 years if a lot of cows are run through the barn. Otherwise, producers can expect a building to last 20 to 30 years before a major renovation is needed.

JACKSON: I have been selling buildings since 1985, and those original buildings are still going strong. We offer a 50-year warrantee on the columns. Some producers may have to replace their roof steel, as that usually takes the hardest hit on dairies.

RICHARDS: Our structures have a 50-year warrantee on the columns and trusses. We also install a double-ribbed, diamond-weave roof that lasts for years and years. Items with moving parts, such as curtains and garage doors, tend to wear out faster. Other elements, such as skid loader drivers running into the building, can also affect longevity.

What do you see trending most in construction preferences?

AMBROSIUS: Cow comfort is such a big part of any dairy. It was a construction trend five years ago, too. We just keep expanding on it based on the latest research available.

BINGHAM: To be as efficient as possible. We try to build for cow comfort and cow flow. We’re really seeing efficiency impacting construction decisions on the feed side. Producers are watching their feed blow away in the wind and figure saved feed will yield a return on investment.

JACKSON: Animal comfort and finding ways to cut down on labor. Producers are taking a look at cleaning, maintenance and ease of cow flow for labor savings.

RICHARDS: The biggest things producers are looking for is cow comfort, ways to reduce heat stress, good ventilation and stall size. Every year, the freestall buildings get a little wider.

Is the cost of building materials higher or lower compared to the last five-year average?

AMBROSIUS: Building costs are definitely higher based on the inflation the industry has seen. When you compare it to inflation in the general economy, dairy producers are getting a better bargain today than five years ago.

BINGHAM: The cost of building materials has been holding fairly steady throughout this last year. I think we will start to see it trending upward. The labor market is also going up, as there is a greater demand for skilled labor.

JACKSON: Steel prices are coming down. Lumber prices are up on average 10 percent and holding steady.

RICHARDS: Right now, it has maintained close to the same costs as we have seen in the last two to three years. There has not been a lot of increase in the cost of lumber, steel and aluminum. However, labor costs and concrete costs continue to climb. PD

- Courtesy of Karen Lee, Progressive Dairyman -


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