10 Thoughts on Buildings and Shelters…the Dollars and Cents of Starting a Small Farm

Wow, I’m struggling to get these posts out! The weather change has made our boys sick and the farm chores go in fast forward before winter gets here–oh wait, it IS here! {smile} It’s dark when we get up again, and now it’s dark when we get home all week. Plus…we added another 4-footed member to the family and he has some special needs of his own. I’m sure I’ll have more about him soon, but in the meantime, you should hop over and follow us on Facebook for updates between posts–in the busy seasons, that’s where we’re able to share the most.

But today we’re back with another piece in our series of the Dollars and Cents of Starting a Small Farm. This series is meant to give you the tools to think through all the decision-making that goes with starting a small farm, along with some encouragement and creative but realistic tips and ideas for making it affordable.

Buildings and Shelters–or building shelters as we like to do around here!–are a huge part of having livestock on a small farm or homestead. As I’ll talk about later in this post–it’s also one of the more controversial topics. (Who knew?!)

Buildings and Shelters...the Dollars and Cents of Starting a Small Farm {via Walking in High Cotton}

One of our common mantras around here for animal health is “clean and dry, clean and dry.” Keeping your animals clean (meaning no mud!) and dry is at least 60% of the health battle. Mud is a serious enemy on the natural (or trying to be natural!) farmstead. Wet ground is the growing medium for all kinds of bacteria and parasites and being coated in mud lowers body temperatures and keeps an animal’s coat from doing its normal job of warming and shedding weather.

It’s important to realize that “dry” doesn’t necessarily mean that the animal is dry–and this is where we start to get into the controversy!

We believe that God gave a cow/sheep/chicken everything they need to know to be a cow/sheep/chicken. And part of that knowledge is knowing to “come in out of the rain” if they need to. Where a lot of folks start to disagree when it comes to sheltering animals is the “if they need to” part. We believe in doing everything we can to keep the ground dry, and avoiding mud when possible–we tend to use a deep bedding method to get the animals out of the “soup” that becoming common in winter. And we believe in providing wind-breaks and cover for bad precipitation. We don’t believe that you have to force the animals to use it! We don’t “lock” animals in the barn unless we have a sick animal or a very young animal with special needs. Our shelters are all run-in environments and the animals choose whether they need to be in or not.

Just for the record, this drives a lot of folks NUTS. They believe that our animals are out in the weather because we don’t provide enough shelter for them. They can’t conceive of the idea that our cows are bred for hot, humid weather and like 90-100 degree days. And they can’t fathom that our sheep are all wearing huge natural wool coats and don’t mind being in the snow or light to moderate rain.

I don’t say this to make you agree with me, I say it so that you know what perspective we’re working from. As I mentioned in my first post, you always want to be sure that you’re comparing apples to apples. If you believe your sheep are too dumb to use the barn without help (I wouldn’t surprise me if there were a few!) that’s totally your call as the farmer! We also occasionally use weather-forced enclosure for situations like hurricane predictions, etc. If you regularly get blizzards, maybe you need to consider more confinement.

Our sheep don't mind the snow. It just stacks up on their backs like they're walking snow piles.

Our sheep don’t mind the snow. It just stacks up on their backs like they’re walking snow piles.

Another concern we hear raised often is how much shelter is enough? 2-sides? 3-sides? 4-sides, fully enclosed? We believe that over-sheltering reduces your animals overall weather-hardiness and increases dependence on sheltering, and increases opportunities for shelter-based health issues like pneumonia, respiratory infections from dust and mold, and physical injuries from crowding. We believe the best option is to choose animals that are well-adapted to your location, give them as much fresh-air and sunshine as possible, and a place to get out of the mud, wind, and wet, when needed. Most of our shelters are 3-side run-in style or 2-side run-thru design. This lets the animals get in and out as needed, allows maximum air flow while preventing drafts, and blocks wind, rain, sleet, etc. These are also lighter shelters, so they are more easily portable for our rotational system.

Even our red barn there is portable--although not easily. We move it every couple of years. This is our sturdiest shelter for really bad weather.

Even our red barn there is portable–although not easily. This is our sturdiest shelter for really bad weather.

Here’s 10 questions to ask yourself before you think about investing in any buildings or shelters…

1. What is the purpose?!

Is it going to be an animal shelter? Hay and feed storage? Tools and equipment? Will it be multi-purpose? We didn’t always set out thinking multi-purpose at first, but a few years in we realized that we’ve re-purposed every shelter, building, lean-to, carport, and shed on our property as least once. Now we always think–how many ways can we use this in the future?

2. Does it need to be mobile?

Remember, keep the long-term in view. We try to make everything possible mobile–that keeps the whole farmstead flexible if our needs or our interests change. What if our kiddos don’t want to do chickens but we invested in a 1/4 acre permanent coop and yard? Mobile also means it has to be lighter–and sturdier! How are you going to haul it around? By hand? By tractor? By lawn mower or 4-wheeler…It’s quite a balance. {smile} Mr. Fix-It loves this part of farming. The creative design and build part. Oh–and here’s a mistake we’ve made (ok, I admit it, more than once!)–if you’re going to move it around, you have to build it so it fits through all your gates!!

3. What else needs to be stored?

This has been a serious frustration for me! Buildings on the farm are not just about the livestock! The more you farm, the more stuff you have (especially if you’re trying to be thrifty and save and reuse everything!) and then suddenly the more stuff you need to store. There are NEVER enough storage buildings and something is always out in the weather that really shouldn’t be. Hay and feed. Equipment–tractors, mowers, trailers, disc, seed spreader, rototillers, garden tools, 4-wheeler…all need to be stored–preferably under cover!–to increase their useful lifespan. Mechanical tools–welder, air compressor, tool boxes, screws and nails, etc. Then you have fencing supplies, chutes and pens, medical supplies, feed troughs, buckets, scoops, carrying crates, seeds and fertilizers, hoses…the list of supplies is just never-ending–and it all has to go somewhere!

4. Are you sure it should go there?

If you are putting something permanent up, are you absolutely, positively, never-a-doubt-in-your-mind, dead-set that it should go there? Our garage and the lean-to off the side of the garage were pretty much set. Those were based on our house and driveway location. That’s where they were going to be. The end. Everything else, including gates and fence-lines, has been debated ad-nauseum and sometimes we still can’t decide. Everything else has been moved around, and probably will be even more in the future. If there’s any way to try a temporary solution for a year or two first, I would suggest it.

5. Are you following your own pattern?

This sort of follows #4…when in doubt, wait it out. Sometimes our “vision” of perfection doesn’t match our real-life farm. We’ve wanted to put up an equipment pole shed for years now. Money is the reason we waited, but I’m glad we did. Why? Because by putting it off a few years, we finally saw our own pattern and the building would have been on the wrong side of the farm! {smile} We kept talking about using part of the back field (see the red barn picture up there) behind the garage for equipment storage–but in actuality, we store our equipment on “equipment row” at the back of our big field and we use the garage spot for animal handling, lambing, sick pens, and lamb harvest. Now we’re talking about just putting up the shed over our existing “row.” If your sheep are always in the pasture, do you really need a barn by the house?

Here's our standard field shelters for the sheep. They move from field to field as needed.  They keep of the wind, rain, and snow, when needed. They provide shade, when needed. And they can be bedded with straw to keep the animals off the wet ground.

Here’s our standard field shelters for the sheep. They move from field to field as needed.

6. Is this practical?

Look, all farmers love big, old, musty, two-story barns. It’s part of the homesteading heart! But usually they’re just not practical–from a money or a design standpoint. If you’re lucky enough to have one I’m sure you’re finding ways to use it. But if you don’t, there’s probably a lot of other, more practical solutions to your storage needs. On a small farm or homestead, practical usually means the most use for the least money. As everything else, this means over the long-term. Sometimes more up-front costs to get the most use, is the least money in the long-run. And don’t forget to think about maintenance when you’re thinking about cost!

We use metal “hoop” shelters the most right now. They need almost no maintenance and last a really long time. We’re also able to find the pieces used at auctions (our sheep huts are made from “useless” pieces of a bigger structure!) because they last long enough to be resold. They’re big enough for our sheep, but small enough to be moved around easily with the tractor. They keep off the wind, rain, and snow and provide shade. And they can be bedded with straw to keep the animals off the wet ground and provide warmth. The open ends mean there’s no drafts, plenty of ventilation, and easy exits if someone spooks. Our red barn was our biggest building investment other than our garage, and it’s been worth it to have that sturdy shelter and small field to use during hurricane season. But it needs to be painted as we speak–again.

7. Can it be expanded?

Most farms grow. Once you’re in, you’re hooked! {smile} When you’re thinking about buildings and shelters, a lot of times you have to think small because of your budget. But if you invest wisely, it will be easy to grow later. Our huts could be bolted together, we could add more as we get more animals, or take one out of use and store it if we have fewer animals. On permanent structures you can add lean-tos. Our garage has one on the left, and we could add one off the right or the back if we wanted too. If you put a building right up against a fence, ditch, etc. then you’ve limited your expansion options.

8. Am I reinventing the wheel here?

To be thrifty, sometimes it’s best just to copy someone that’s already been there, done that. Honestly, we don’t do that very often because Mr. Fix-It enjoys the creative part–and that usually works for us because he’s very good at it. But there’s nothing wrong with copying someone’s success story. In his Pastured Poultry Profits book, Joel Salatin encourages folks to just copy what he did–not make mistakes he’s already made and corrected for no good reason. If you’re an inventor, creator, builder, Mr. Fix-It yourself, then I would encourage you to study what other folks have done before drawing your own design. Mr. Fix-It loves to check out YouTube and Google images (he’s a visual learner) to see other ideas before jumping into his own. Our new chicken house project is a conglomeration of other ideas and my husbands handiwork in re-using some greenhouse materials we acquired from a friend.

9. Do I have something I can use?

I formed this as a question because that’s how I’m writing the post. But actually, what this should say is SAVE EVERYTHING YOU CAN. {smile} Anything can be used on a small farm. I read about someone using an old truck camper shell/cap as a chicken field pen. I’ve read about folks using pallets to make animal pens. We used a dog kennel as the basis for our duck pen (which we’re using today as a chicken pen–remember, reuse!). We’re repurposing a cast-off greenhouse frame into a chicken house right now. We salvaged an old pop-up camper frame to make our old chicken house mobile. Our field pen/chicken tractor is tin from an old shed someone took down and shared with us because they knew we’d use “stuff like that.” As I mentioned last winter, we have piles of “farm junk” around because we try to keep anything that might be use-able in the future. This is part of being thrifty.

Here's a picture of the back of our garage, with the back of the lean-to, and then the run-thru carport that we use for, well, anything we need.

Here’s a picture of the back of our garage, with the back of the lean-to, and then the run-thru carport that we use for, well, anything we need. Lambing shed, lamb harvest shed, tractor shed, hay storage shed…it’s truly multi-purpose.

10. Do I care how it looks?

Ok, I saved this for last because I hate it, but it’s really important. The fact is that sometimes “practical” or “frugal” can start to look like crap. There, I said it. This bothers Mr. Fix-It much more than it bothers me. I’m not one to care what other folks think–but this has come to matter to me for a couple reasons that I think you should consider…

  • What your husband/partner/significant other/rest-of-the-family think is important. If they (or you!) hate rolling up in the driveway because the place looks like an abandoned farm scene from Chainsaw Massacre, well, you’re going to have issue with all kinds of other stuff. Your place should bring warmth and joy and pride, and home to your heart, or you’re not going to have the heart it takes to keep going when the going gets tough.
  • What your customers think is important. If you want customers, you have to consider what they think. Half your job is to educate them, and half your job is to meet their expectations. They’re expecting something from Old McDonald’s or Mother Goose. You probably can’t give them that, but you can probably meet them in the middle. If all you’re offering is Chainsaw Massacre, they probably won’t be back.
  • What the public thinks is important. I’m going to try to not be ugly here, but when it comes to farm animals, most people are ignorant and judgmental. If folks think your place looks like crap, they are going to think your animals are treated like crap, and they’re going to call someone and complain and you’re going to have a big headache. More people I know have gotten rid of their livestock because of neighbor complaints than because of financial issues. Most are completely unfounded and due to simple ignorance, but there it is. Most are not forced to get rid of their animals, they just get tired of feeling harassed.

Here’s the thing, you, as the farmer, need to know what you’re about. You need to know what your animals need and what they don’t. You need to know what you’re doing and why-or why not. You need to keep all these things in mind, think carefully, and make the best decisions for your place–and be ready to stand by them. It’s just part of farming in today’s world.

Here's the kiddos bedding down the cow hut. Pretty much any animal could use it, or we could use it for feed or equipment storage.

Here’s the kiddos bedding down the cow hut–bigger than the sheep huts, but same design. Pretty much any animal could use it, or we could use it for feed or equipment storage.

And there ends the longest post in Walking in High Cotton history! But I really think this is great information–some things I wish folks had laid out a little plainer to us as we got started.

I’d love to hear about and learn from your experience too! And we’ll be back on Monday (I hope!) with the next part of the series!

Dollars and Cents of Starting a Small Farm

Starting a Small Farm : LAND

Starting a Small Farm : BUILDINGS and SHELTERS

Starting a Small Farm : FOOD and WATER

Starting a Small Farm : HEALTH and WELLNESS

Starting a Small Farm : CHOOSING LIVESTOCK

Starting a Small Farm : ORGANIZING

See where I’m sharing…

boots footer 2014


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