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New finishing barn offers cattle comfort

Lawrence area farmer and rancher Zach Herz has built a cattle finishing barn that could be the first in a beef feeding revolution. The bedded manure-pack barn is one of the first in the state, but if more farmers and ranchers build similar structures, beef feeding could move from the feedlot to the farm.

Herz, 23, farms with his dad, Ken, and his older brother, Aaron, south and west of Lawrence.

Herz became interested in cattle finishing barns six years ago when he and his dad went to Iowa State University to tour some new facilities. One of those was a structure known as a hoop barn, with a fabric cover.

At a glance

A bedded manure-pack barn is simple, yet effective.

The straw and manure form a pack, which later is applied to fields.

Research shows the pros and cons of this inside finishing barn.

“We really liked the philosophy that went into it,” Herz says, but the design wasn’t quite what he wanted. Herz continued researching while a student at Northeast Community College in Norfolk, where he received his associate’s degree in 2009.

After he returned to the family farm, he seriously began pursuing plans to build his barn, which ultimately became a more solid bedded manure-pack structure as opposed to one with a fabric cover.

“I wanted to make a major contribution to our farming operation,” Herz says. He decided that building a facility to finish the family’s cattle was exactly what their farm needed.

“We couldn’t feed them to finished weight because we didn’t have the space,” Herz says. “It kind of put the final piece to the train we were running.”

His brother, Aaron, operates a haying business, and the family grows their own calves and corn. Before they built the barn, they sold the calves as feeders to a nearby feedlot. Now they are involved in every part of the beef life cycle. “We produce the hay, we produce the calves, and now we produce the meat,” Herz says.

Construction started in September 2010 and finished in November 2010. The barn is 100 feet wide, 200 feet long, 28 feet high on the south side and slopes down to 18 feet high on the north side, where there is a two-piece curtain used to block the wind in the winter. The barn holds 400 cattle, and Herz has the building filled to capacity.

Inside layout

Feed bunks, which Herz fills with a feed truck, run down the front and the back of the barn. A manure trough runs down the middle between the two pens. A water trough also occupies part of the center aisle.

The cement aprons are behind the bunks, and manure and straw are packed in the middle of the barn parallel to the feed bunks. Every four days, he cleans the aprons and lays down an average of 5 pounds per head per day of straw.

“The biggest factors that I was not expecting at all that effect your strawing rate are humidity and wind,” Herz says.

On cold, misty days he laid straw down every two days, which meant 10 pounds per head per day, but when the temperature exceeded 80 degrees F in early May, he waited over a week to lay down new straw, which figured out to 2 pounds per head per day. “It varies greatly in the spring, but during the winter, it was like clockwork.”

The barn is called a “bedded manure-pack” barn because the manure is layered with fresh straw to create a manure pack in the center of the barn. After the cattle have been sold, the manure will be spread on the family’s crop fields. Keeping the manure under cover prevents runoff, which is better for the environment and makes manure more valuable as a fertilizer.

Herz found funding for the barn through the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which provides cost-share dollars for environmentally-friendly buildings. He also took advantage of low-interest loans available to young farmers and ranchers.

“It is so hard for kids to come home to the family farm,” Herz says. “This is a great way for college kids coming back to add a big enterprise to the farm.”

Improved gains for cattle under roof

Zach Herz says that keeping the cattle under cover has meant more steady gains. His cattle never went off feed, even in the coldest days of winter.

“The cattle have done really well in it,” Herz says. “Healthwise, it has been very, very good.” He’s only treated one calf for a minor illness.

Terry Mader, University of Nebraska-Lincoln beef specialist near Concord, says cattle in barns similar to Herz’s show a 4% improvement in gain. “There is a trade-off, however,” Mader says. “What you have is more a uniform environment for feeding and caring for cattle. What you lose is that it is something you have to take care of daily.”

Mader also says that the barns are only feasible when corn prices are optimal. “At $3 corn, these things are hard to justify, but at $6 corn, it is more economical.”

The first calves went into the barn on Nov. 10, 2010, and Herz sold the first load on May 18. Usually, the barn would house a summer cycle of cattle, but he plans to build a catch pen and some grain bins next to the barn and will not put another cycle in until his family weans their calves in September.

He felt one of the most valuable benefits of the barn was being able to see which calves finished out the best. “You take their data, their performance, and you turn around and you select and sell cows based on that data,” Herz says.

“It’s farm to slaughter, instead of farm to feedlot to slaughter,” according to Herz. “We have bred the cows, birthed the calves, raised the calves — we know exactly what’s been going on in the life cycle.”

Buildings like his barn also stimulate local businesses. Herz has purchased his hay grinding, trucking, distillers grains and feed supplements locally, and has future plans to advertise and sell his beef locally.

“These buildings do a lot more than give me something. They give the whole community something,” Herz says.

Herz was not aware that any other local farmers or ranchers were building a barn like his. “Most of the barns the contractor I used builds are in Iowa,” Herz says. “They’ve just started to take off in the last year or two.” Herz held an open house for area farmers and ranchers in mid-December, and it was well attended.

“The contractor said he had never seen an open house with this many interested people,” Herz says.

Herz says he is pleased with the barn’s initial results. He recommends bedded manure-pack barns to other farmers and ranchers.

“It was very nice to see that first load of cattle go in the there,” Herz adds. “I’ve never had a project that I’ve worked on that long actually come true — it was exciting.”

No settling basin is required

Terry Mader, University of Nebraska-Lincoln beef specialist near Concord, is familiar with the benefits and disadvantages of enclosed confinement feeding barns. He says that the barns’ ability to catch all the cattle’s manure is one of the greatest assets.

“You have to deal with the bedding, but some places have to dedicate 30% of their operation to settling basins and lagoons,” Mader says. “With these barns, it’s not going to be a problem. You have captured the manure, and with fertilizer prices, it’s worth a lot of money.”


SIMPLE DESIGN: The Herz structure is 100 feet wide and 200 feet long. The north side has a two-piece curtain to block winter winds.


RIGHT FIT: Zach Herz says the finishing barn was exactly what the farm needed.

This article published in the July, 2011 edition of NEBRASKA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.