How to Start & Manage a Micro Dairy, Step 10: Choosing and Building the Structures

Reader Contribution by Steve Judge
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The type of barn you choose for your micro dairy depends on many factors — space, available storage, and most especially, climate. This last one is particularly important to Bob-White Systems, which is based in Vermont. You see, it gets cold in Vermont. One January morning in the early 1990s when I was milking 70 Jerseys, I woke up and stared at the outside thermometer in disbelief. It read 43 degrees below zero at 5:00 AM! In addition to the extreme cold, it gets muddy and snowy in Vermont. So, I built a small, 22′ x 38′ tie barn with four stalls. The actual stable area is 18′ x 22′ with additional space for a wash room, utility room, milk room, toilet room and a small entry. 

This type of barn has worked well for Bob-White Systems. Here are some of my tips and advice to keep in mind when building your own micro dairy barn:

• The size of the stable — the space where the cows are kept in the barn — is important. It should contain 1,000 cubic feet per cow for proper ventilation. The cows alone will be enough to heat the space during the coldest days. Cows’ breath is moisture laden so I chose to install a good variable-speed, wall-mounted exhaust fan. The incoming air flows over the cows’ backs from head to tail. In the winter the fan is set to keep the temperature of the stable area between 45 and 50 degrees F.

• Tie stalls are not as popular as they once were but I prefer them for cold climates for several reasons. If the stalls are configured properly, it is much easier to keep the cows clean and control their manure. I clean my gutter by hand with a shovel and wheelbarrow.  Even during the winter, when the cows are inside the barn more than not, cleaning the gutter takes less than ten minutes per day and it is much cheaper than going to a gym for a workout. During the summer, when the cows are outside most of the time, I clean the gutter once per week at the most — if that. I dump the manure on a concrete pad outside the barn against a concrete backstop where I scoop it up with my tractor. From there, I take it to my manure pile for storage and composting.

• It is also much easier to control the cows’ feed and reduce waste in a tie barn. It is important to set up the mangers and stalls properly. The stall dividers should extend into the manger to keep the cows from stealing from one another and from getting down on their front knees to stretch for food. The manger should have an old-fashioned backstop to keep the cows from pushing the feed out of their reach.  Mangers were usually constructed with backstops before motorized feed carts became common. Since all feeding is done by hand in a micro dairy — or should be — mangers can and should have backstops. 

• Tread length, the surface that the cows stand on while they are in their stalls, is also a very important consideration. You’re not being kind to your cows by making the treads a little longer than they should be. Shorter treads mean cleaner cows. I recommend a tread length of 5′ to 5′ 4″ for Jerseys. Your gutter should be 16″ wide and at least 10″ deep.

• I equipped the treads in the BWS barn with thick, cushiony yet durable mattresses called Pasture Mats. Because they are so comfortable, I use very little bedding. Swollen hocks and stepped-on teats are nonexistent.  I have experimented with the curb height and have settled on an 11” height above the tread on the cow side. That may seem high but my cows are comfortable with it and they waste less hay.

• The Bob-White barn is set up for maximum flexibility when it comes to hay storage. I feed both small square bales and wrapped round bales. I store the round bales outside on a level, well-drained spot built up with crushed stone next to the barn. I store the square bales in the loft above the stable area.  Twenty round bales and 500 square bales are enough for my cows’ winter feed. Some years good, second cut square bales can be difficult to come by and I have to rely on round bales almost exclusively. Doesn’t matter. I can feed both easily.

The ideal micro dairy barn will keep the cows clean, dry and comfortable. When I let my cows out of the barn on cold and snowy days, they just stand there and look at me as if saying “you have to be kidding” and they don’t hesitate to come back in when the door opens. A good barn should also be comfortable for the humans and designed to reduce the time and steps required to do chores. Efficiency and comfort for both “man and beast” is the goal.

To learn more about how to manage a micro dairy go to