Hog heaven, poultry paradise

Building digs for pigs? Constructing dens for hens?

When it comes to types of livestock, each is literally a “different animal.” Builders across the country know just as well as the farmers and ranchers they serve that the facilities suited to each animal have very different specifications.

Along with the physical requirements of poultry and swine, numerous other factors must be taken into account when building these livestock enclosures. Consider, for example, the way each farmer operates, the state of commodity prices and the farm economy, and the site conditions at a given location.

“As a builder, you can’t approach the poultry and swine markets with preset designs because every farmer has a unique way of doing things,” reports Steve Stroud, district sales manager for Energy Panel Structures (EPS), a manufacturer of pre-engineered building systems in Graettinger, Iowa. “You’ve got to communicate with the owner to find out what they want to accomplish.”

Chad Wendinger, owner of Buck Builders in Arlington, Minn., serves the poultry market and concurs that his own bids on various projects “can be quite different in price depending on things like ventilation, heating, and watering options.”

For the construction of swine facilities, a service provided by Precision Structures of Wellman, Iowa, president Chris Harmsen relates, “The challenge is the volatility of the swine sector. The number of buildings going up is tied to its profitability, which can swing up or down fairly strongly and quickly.”

Beyond the whims of customers and the economy are the whims of weather. Tom and Debbie Witt, proprietors of Tom Witt Contractor Inc. in Newell, Iowa, have been building livestock structures for more than three decades. “Pouring the concrete for the hog finishing building’s deep pit   is no easy task if rain is in the forecast.

“We’d like three weeks of no rain until the pit is backfilled,” Debbie explains.

With so much uncertainty, can rural builders make profits in the poultry and swine construction markets? Those who serve these markets are cautiously optimistic but advise newcomers to do their homework and to be flexible.

Poultry prospects

“I think there’s going to be an upswing in poultry barns because swine production is going down,” believes Wendinger. “Though the hog industry has been good in the past, it’s been terrible here for the past two years so that owners are starting to leave hog barns empty.”

On the other hand, he continues, “Poultry costs less per pound. The turnaround on turkey and chicken is a matter of weeks, and they take a lot less feed than pigs.” Buck Builders recently constructed its first turkey barn, which Wendinger believes is a positive sign. Nevertheless, he also pursues residential and commercial projects in order to maintain volume.

Wendinger points out a few basics for newcomers to poultry building.

“Barns typically have dirt floors because it helps keep moisture problems at bay,” he says. For the structure itself, he advises builders to “work with experienced designers and equipment suppliers who are trained to give you all the specs, such as how many birds you can put in the barn.”

Before taking on a poultry barn project, Wendinger suggests, “Look at other poultry barns and do walk-throughs. Ask the owners,”Would you do anything differently? What were the positives and negatives about working with their builders? Knowing what clients want will help ensure it gets done the right way.”

Stroud of EPS agrees that, in comparison to the swine market, “Poultry building has been holding steady.” But he reiterates that “each building is unique to the company with which we’re working — there’s always a new piece of equipment, design or layout.”

For example, not long ago the company helped the University of Illinois devise new layouts for its poultry research facility.

Because each swine or poultry building is different, Stroud emphasizes, “Communicate with the owners to see what equipment choices they prefer and what they want to accomplish. Do they want standard overhangs or no overhangs? What kind of ventilation?”

The client’s decisions on these questions can dramatically affect the structure. For instance, he says, “Most fans are located on the ground outside the building. But if a blower sits up in the trusses, then we’ve got to calculate and map out the needed support.”

Though EPS manufactures panels and advises, as Stroud explains, that “panels go together a lot more quickly than stick builds,” he admits that panelized construction might not fit every project. “If the customer is looking for extremely tight climate control, panels are the best option,” he points out, “but in deciding whether or not to use panels, a lot depends on how the building is being ventilated. Panels might not be an option for structures with curtains on the side which can be raised and lowered.”

Swine specifics

While many structures can be adapted for use as poultry buildings, those built for hogs can never be used for any other purpose. Still, even if their functions are highly specific, swine facilities can be built with an array of equipment and design options.

“Commercial buildings could be sold to someone else down the road, so you don’t have to know its use,” observes Chris Harmsen of Precision Structures, “but you’ve got to build a swine facility with a strong understanding of the production practices because it’s a very specific single use type of building. Then, too, oftentimes the building isn’t owned by the same person that owns the animals. Instead, a contract producer is paid a certain amount each year to do the production work.”

The difference starts at the foundation. “There are concrete manure structures underneath the building and pre-cast concrete slats that go in above the pit,” Harmsen explains.

“The framed building itself isn’t out of the ordinary. But the electrical system supports equipment which includes fans, alarms and lights. And plumbing is needed for a sprinkling system to soak the animals, as well as to clean out the facility through power-washing.”

Since animals arrive at a hog farm weighing about 15 pounds and then leave when they reach about 280 pounds, most farmers can maintain two groups of animals per year. Buildings must be designed to accommodate swine when they reach their peak size. For that reason, notes Harmsen, many facilities “are constructed based on a standard size in which the number of head is converted to square feet.”

Because some 95 percent of Precision Structures’ customers are involved in swine production, the company has built facilities of every size and description. “But the good news is that facilities are fairly repetitive once you know what works and what doesn’t,” Harmsen states. Projects generally take two or three months to complete. “And since we’re not seeing major changes in the basic production methods,” he adds, “we can be quite efficient in quoting, designing and building the facilities.”

Being efficient and squeezing costs out of his own operation are especially important right now, Harmsen admits, because “even though we’ve been able to keep our core workers busy, most construction around us is slow right now.”

Experience counts

Hog farmers served by Tom and Debbie Witt have responded to the slowdown by entering into cooperative ownership of new swine facilities. To date, the Witts have completed four such joint projects, each of which included eight to 10 buildings. That adds up to a lot of individual buildings, so that the Witts have become experts in siting.

“With all the rules and regulations, we have to make sure customers follow those rules when choosing a site,” Debbie Witt explains. “The buildings must be a certain distance from neighbors, wells, rivers, streams and roads.”

Owners must be carefully questioned about their preferences before construction begins.

“Large companies that own pigs will have different opinions about operations. So they’re very specific on their preferences, like whether they want a dry or a wet feeder,” Witt says.

Another aspect on which owners’ preferences can vary is ventilation.

“Until five years ago, all hog buildings were naturally ventilated and temperature was controlled by raising or lowering curtains,” Witt reports. “But then pig owners had the idea for ‘tunnel ventilation’ so air could be pulled through the building, giving off a constant light breeze using fans at one end of the building.”

Even though many customers — especially larger operations — are specific in their wants, Witt believes that she and her husband “have a responsibility to be aware of all the newest options and bring these to the owner’s attention, in order to provide the best comfort for the pigs.” In turn, that means the Witts work with trusted and knowledgeable suppliers and subcontractors.

And since livestock buildings can endure much wear and tear, Witt believes in service after the sale. “You need to pick suppliers who are service-oriented,” she affirms. “Besides, if you choose fair and reputable building suppliers, the building shouldn’t need any major repairs for at least 10 years.”

Agricultural markets go up and down, so that construction activity is cyclical. Yet reliable, quality builders who earn farmers’ trust are well positioned to survive — and thrive — with steady repeat and referral business.

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