The concept of the round dairy barn was short-lived; it was suitable for small dairy herds.

I had the pleasure of working in one at the University of Illinois as a student employee at the dairy-research facility. When I was there in the early 1980s the fistulated cows were kept there. They had holes in their sides with special plugs that allowed graduate students and researchers access to their rumens. The rumen is the largest of a cow’s four stomachs; it’s often referred to as the fermentation vat, where forage is digested.

I would often assist in the retrieval of rumen contents by holding onto the cows nervously flailing tail. Bracing myself at her flank, I would look on as students took gloved handfuls of warm sour mash from the churning urn of forage. They would bag the mixture and then head for the lab to analyze its ratios of volatile fatty acids and ketone bodies. They’d also look for the ultimate prize, adenosine tri phosphate, that basic unit that creates energy for cellular processes.

The round barn was archaic in its circularity. The cows stood in stalls facing inward toward the center of the circle; their manure landed in a gutter behind them. The cleaning of manure was done by the strong-arm method with a flat-bladed shovel. Manure was lifted into a large bucket that ran on a trolley around the barn behind the cows. The track led out to a dump spot where one would flip a lever to tip the contents onto a steaming pile of composting manure.

The system had its nuances. The circular track the trolley rode on was in sections. Through time the shifting of the barn misaligned the track; a mishap could result in the whole thing dumping prematurely. It didn’t take long for inexperienced student workers to learn where the tricky spots were along the trolley track. One mishap could set one back a half-hour in extra shoveling.

In a round barn the efficiencies are best realized in the interior of the circle. With the cattle in stalls facing inward the herdsperson walks fewer miles delivering feed to the herd. The silo located at barn center means the season’s forage supply is only a few feet from the dairy herd’s waiting mouths.

The cows that comprised the fistulated herd were generally older and well-trained. At milking time we’d release them by thumbing open the snap on the chain attached to the tiestall upright. They’d back out and saunter to the little side-opening parlor where we’d milk and release them. In the university setting each cow had her own stall with a name and identification number. Feed intake and refusal were weighed and recorded. It was important that the cow residing in a stall was properly located.

Cattle are amazingly trainable when learning their spot in a stall barn, but when dealing with 1,500-pound ungulates mishaps are the norm. Incidences are exaggerated in a round dairy barn. Relocating two cows side-by-side in the wrong stalls in a round barn can turn into a square dance gone awry in a hurry. And square dancing in a round barn is ironic in itself.

There’s nothing worse than a cow who can’t find her spot in a stall barn despite the fact it’s the only one left available. In a round barn the effects can be dizzying. We would make a little barricade by wrapping a chain around the stall partition. Making another complete circle around the perimeter, we’d hope Bonnie respected that little chain with her 1,500-pound girth – rather than to walk right through it. Then there was always the chance she’d become a little spooked and turn around to head back about halfway around the circle. When that happened the barricade would lead to her joining a herdmate in her stall.

And so I discovered the garment toss. If Bonnie looked like she was going straight instead of veering left to her stall I’d simply remove my hat or even an old hooded sweatshirt. I’d toss it over her in a lilting arc that landed in a way that would direct her head in the right direction, where she’d have that ah-ha moment and recognize her appropriate stall. It worked about half the time. Not bad odds considering the multitude of options a cow can find in the confines of a round barn, which is essentially a circle with no beginning or end.

The true round-barn era spanned from 1889 until 1936. As mechanization became a part of farming the popularity of the design dwindled. I was glad to be in on the tail end of their use in the process of honing my herdsmanship skills.

Round barn in Wisconsin

Two women on a farmstead pose in front of a round barn near Grafton in Ozaukee County, Wisconsin. The name Ri Clausing is written on the back of the photograph.

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Greg Galbraith and his wife, Wendy, sold their dairy farm after 30 years of grazing cattle. He now has 20 acres of his grandfather’s original farm with a sugar bush and cabin. From there he writes about the evolving rural landscape. Visit www.poeticfarmer.com for more information.