Beef producers know that new calves are the lifeblood of the cow-calf business. They can all tell some nightmare stories about calving in less-than-ideal weather conditions.
Tom Ruskamp is a cow-calf producer from Dodge, Nebraska. He became tired of battling the elements before going in a different direction to protect new calves from the weather. He recently put up a hoop barn on his operation and is having positive results.
“We just put it up a couple of years ago,” he said. “We really got tired of fighting weather in the fall and spring, which can include rain or snow. We began looking at the possibility of putting barns up for calving in.”
With the goal of keeping calves out of the weather, he said it may be a little surprising to choose a hoop barn to accomplish the task; hoop barns are open at both ends. But, he said the facilities do a good job of keeping out the bulk of any bad weather.
“It really does take most of the weather off the calves,” Ruskamp said. “If you get the right snow or rain event, some of it will get in there. However you can close off most of the back side of the barn, which stops the wind out of the west, north and east from getting into our facility.
“You can keep the animals in these types of facilities all the time, if you want to, or even need to. When they get old enough, we’ll run the animals out onto corn stalks or pastures, if we want to.”
Hoop barns are versatile structures, a factor of which the beef industry is taking notice. Jake Ruth, technical sales representative with Central Confinement Services in Columbus, Nebraska, said ventilation is a big advantage to the structures.
“We really like these types of buildings for producers on the cow-calf side for their ventilation,” Ruth said. “These buildings ventilate really well, which is especially critical for baby calves. These structures are also versatile enough for producers to use in finishing, for cow-calf production, calving barns or development barns. The neat thing is they have a lot of different uses.”
Ruskamp said choosing a hoop barn boiled down to one simple factor — pasture rent. Increasing prices made it difficult to find good pasture.
“We started thinking about dry lots,” he said. “If you look into the cost of what you can put ingredients together for, it’s almost cheaper to dry lot your calves than to run them out in pastures. The cost of pasture or crop ground has gotten so high, you can almost bring the feed to the animals and still be almost money ahead.”
He said calving in a hoop barn is almost like calving behind a windbreak. As long as calves can stay out of the wind, the calves will most likely survive. They ensure the bed pack is kept dry as well. As long as the calves stay dry, they’ll be in good shape, Ruskamp said.
“In the 8-foot alleyway in the back, we have a 2-foot stud wall on both sides,” he said. “If the right wind comes along, it’s almost like laying in the grass because the wind blows right over the top of them.”
To the inexperienced eye, hoop barns might not appear as sturdy as a “traditional” barn. Ruskamp said they’re quite strong. His facility has steel beams cemented into the ground. Those beams have a 90-plus mile-per-hour-wind load built into them. With the curved roof, snow doesn’t stay on top through the winter.
“In our barn every third rib is cut out between it, and it’s about a foot wide,” Ruskamp said. “On the hottest days of the year, that lets air ventilate out of the structure. The way it’s built allows the air to circulate out of there approximately every 10 minutes. That means the cows stay pretty cool on some of the hottest days of the year.
His hoop barn has a curtain on the north side that they can close off to keep most of the wind out. There’s a 4-foot opening above the curtain that still allows air to circulate through but keeps it off the cattle. Overall, while they’re tweaking the structure to fit their specific needs, it’s made a difference in their bottom line.
“The year before we put it up was the winter where things never really froze,” he said. “We were calving in February and March, and the ground was really muddy. We ended up losing about 30 calves that spring. At that point, we needed to do something different.
“We had our first calves born in the facility that fall. We lost 15 calves that fall, but that was due more to our vaccine protocol than anything else. We needed to realize you can’t just walk away after they’re born. When we worked out the vaccination program, we lost only five calves the next spring. Going from 30 calves lost down to 15, and then five, I’d say we’re going in the right direction.”