Ask how long a good hog building will last around Geneseo Pork, Geneseo, IL, and they're likely to ask for clarification: "Do you mean functionally or physically?"
"Physically, we can build them to last a long time," says majority owner Dave Culbertson.
But if a physically sound building becomes outdated, it becomes a good candidate for renovation, not the bulldozer. And that's Greg Patton's job. For lack of a better term - he couldsafely be labeled the "in-house subcontractor" at Geneseo Pork.
Even though several of their buildings were constructed in the mid-'60s, they're still very much a part of the production system. They may have been completely gutted, renovated to serve in a different phase of production, but they're still cranking out hogs.
Like many growth-oriented producers, Geneseo Pork has a menagerie of buildings. The "home" farm, originally a typical farrow-to-finish operation, has evolved to nursery through finishing production with an inventory of about 13,000 pigs. Another finisher, purchased and remodeled at a separate location, houses 2,600 head. And, two years ago, they built a new, state-of the-art, 1,500-sow, breeding-gestation/farrowing unit on a separate site.
The Geneseo Pork staff has an impressive resume of remodeling projects and new construction spanning over two decades. At the helm of every project is Patton. If it's bid, built or renovated at Geneseo Pork, Patton's fingerprints are on it.
"They try to keep me away from the hogs," he says, sort of in jest, but not completely. Patton's job is to keep the system operating. It's become second nature for him to concentrate on the condition of the physical structure and the equipment when he "walks" the maze of buildings. When he does take a turn at weekend chores, he admits: "I have to keep reminding myself - look at the hogs, look at the hogs!"
Patton's position at Geneseo Pork is every bit as much a part of the production team as the breeding-gestation or farrowing-nursery manager.
Culbertson began his hog-production career in 1970 when he took a job with pork industry Hall of Famer George Brauer. "George was fond of saying: 'Don't build it so well that you can't tear it out,'" remembers Culbertson. And George meant it. Culbertson's first project at Brauer's was tearing out the solid concrete portion of a partially slotted barn so it could be converted to total slats.
Five years and a good deal of experience later, Culbertson and Brauer worked out an arrangement on the Geneseo Pork operation and Culbertson took over the reins. Patton joined Culbertson a year later, leaving a high school vocational ag teaching post he had held for 10 years. In 22 years since, they've remodeled, revamped, reinforced all of the home farm buildings at least once, some 2-3 times. Patton knows what works, what doesn't.
Long-Term Philosophy The first few years gave Patton and Culbertson some early lessons that shaped their long-term philosophy. "It was a few years before we started building much, so we saw the differences in quality and construction," Culbertson says. Although they hesitate to use the term "over-built," they admit to the tendency to spec things heavier than most.
"Dave's always had the philosophy that if we're going to be in the hog business for the next 20 years, and to be competitive raising hogs, we're going to have to have something to work with," Patton explains. "If we have to tear it out and put something else in, we're going to do it. It's been one of the strengths of the operation."
The built-to-last philosophy has a positive impact on employee attitudes, they say. "It affects the long-term morale of the whole operation," Patton says. "If you build a building as cheap as you can, put in the cheapest equipment and then try to hire people that will take the best possible care of the hogs - in 3-4 years, maybe 10 years - they're spending more time beating that building back together. Pretty soon they're worrying more about the buildings and equipment than they are about the hogs."
Built to Last The physical vs. functional question depends somewhat on the stage of production you're talking about.
Farrowing design is pretty well defined in the industry, they agree. When built to last, they remain functional.
Nurseries have become a debatable issues because of new wean-finish designs.
Growers are outdated. Finishing designs may best be described as versatile because many designs work quite well - and they can show you several to confirm their belief.
The ultimate challenge, then, is to keep pace with the industry, adopt new, proven technology when it comes along while using existing structures built to last. That pretty much outlines Patton's job description.
Whether building new or remodeling the old, Patton says look for a good roof, solid walls around you and quality concrete work. With new construction, Patton specs the physical structure, then puts out for bids on the concrete and the building. Equipment installation and finishing work is commonly handled by the Geneseo Pork staff.
When dealing with a contractor, timing is important. "We try to let bids in late winter for a couple of reasons," Patton explains. "First, you will get more competitive bids from the contractors. He's sitting there not knowing whether he's going to have any work this year. They like to tie down that first project."
Build in the winter? No way, says Patton. "Too many bad things can happen." But, be ready when the weather breaks.
They count on bids from 2-3 good, local contractors they've worked with for several years, plus a couple others. Their choice is based mostly on price and reputation.
Site preparation is critical, Patton emphasizes. If extra fill is needed, make sure it's well compacted. Ideally, it should set over winter. This is important because it impacts whether the footings and pit walls will settle. "They carry the building. As a building gets wider and the pits get deeper, it gets even more critical," he adds.
Patton relies on MidWest Plan Service recommendations (contact MWPS at 1-800-562-3618). "Don't skimp on re-bar," he warns. "We use 1/2-in. rebar in 4-ft. pits, 5/8-in. in a 10-ft. pit, maybe heavier." If reinforcing wire is used in floors, make sure they pull it up into the concrete, he says. "It won't do much good sitting on the ground."
Patton usually specs concrete at a 5-bag mix, sometimes 6-bag. "We use 3,500-lb. mix on the concrete floors, 4,000-lb. mix on any walls or slat columns," he says. "But, what's more important - and I'm not sure how to control it - is to be sure they don't water it down to make it easier to work. Adding water can reduce the strength of the concrete."
Here's a hint on concrete crews: "You can tell a good concrete crew when they can handle it without killing themselves," says Patton. "We amateurs can work ourselves to death and still end up with a mess. I once asked a concrete guy what the secret to working concrete is. His answer: 'About 35 years of experience.'"
Frames & Trusses Although it may sound logical, the wider and more open a building, the more critical the trusses will be. Patton says they learned a hard lesson after remodeling a 48x260-ft. sow house, even though the trusses appeared to be plenty strong. The sow house had 8- and 12-ft. pens, an alley down the middle with oak 2x4s supporting the fences and nailed to the trusses. "The place was terrible to work in," Patton remembers. "So when we remodeled it, we opened it up completely, poured concrete pen dividers and got rid of the obstructions."
After a while, however, they began noticing stress cracks at the top of the rafters. "We couldn't figure out what was going on - the ridgeline stayed straight," he explains.
A consulting engineer said the stress cracks were caused by the building "twisting with the wind." Exacerbating the twisting problem, sidewall 4x6-in. posts were set on 8-ft. centers to accommodate the 6x8 ft. butterfly ventilation doors, which reduced wall support further, Patton explains.
He applied this lesson when he drew up the specs on a new 76x350 ft., tunnel-ventilated, breeding-gestation (B-G) barn. Patton added strength to the building by anchoring the sidewalls using angle iron brackets bolted to the pit walls with 3/4-in. bolts and two 1/2-in. bolts holding the column in place. In addition, he placed knee braces along the outside alleys, bracing the sidewalls to the bottom of the trusses. "It can be a real head-knocker," he admits, "But it adds a lot of strength."
The knee braces created the additional headache of notching the ceiling lining around the braces and making sure insulation reached those pockets created abo ve the ceiling. "The B-G building is a tunnel-ventilated building so it had to be wide open," he adds.
While on the subject of trusses, Patton suggests painting the nailers with an oil-based paint using soybean oil with lots of zinc particles suspended in it. This is particularly important in open-ceiling, naturally ventilated buildings. In new construction, employees "restack" the trusses, painting each nailer as they go. Don't rely on the galvanizing, he advises.
"I can show you buildings where after 20 years you can take a wire brush and wipe the nailer completely off."
If the nailer is beyond repair, clean the joint well, take a piece of plywood, apply construction glue (using a caulking gun) and nail it with a pneumatic nailer. But put the plywood bracing on one side only, Patton warns producers. Otherwise you will create the perfect place for mice to set up housekeeping.
Sidewalls, Roofs & Ceilings The aluminum versus steel debate continues. "After looking at some of our older buildings, we made the commitment that everything we build will have aluminum roofs and sidewalls," Patton says. "But, I do think reputable companies are making pretty good painted steel now. In the end, quality (of material) is as important as the material you chose."
Patton uses .018 aluminum on sidewalls and roofs, .011 for ceilings. "Some manufacturers tell me that there's a lot of difference in tensile strength; some aluminum is a lot softer than others," he notes. "And, if you have to go up on a roof for any reason, you've got to be careful. You can do a lot of damage because aluminum flexes so much."
And, the expansion/contraction during warm days, cold nights, or even partly cloudy days as clouds block the sun, then pass, cause roofs to flex, putting pressure on screws.
"You have got to screw aluminum (sheeting) and I don't know why you wouldn't screw steel (sheeting) too," Patton says. They have a common maintenance practice of "walking roofs" periodically, tightening screws. It's easy to slip into the "out of sight, out of mind" mode when a building has a ceiling and you can't see the sheeting getting loose, he points out. With aluminum, be sure to use aluminum screws. "Yes, they're expensive," he acknowledges.
While speccing the new B-G barn, Patton considered putting trusses 8 ft. on-center (o.c.), then opted for 4 ft. o.c.
"We may have saved a little money with 8 ft. o.c. trusses, but by the time you put in some nailers to carry the ceiling panels so they don't sag when the insulation is put in, we chose to go with the trusses 4 ft. o.c.," he explains. "You've got to pencil those things out."
Concrete "If a hog's going to touch it - make it concrete." That's the Geneseo Pork motto after patching oak walls and pen dividers for years.
Pen dividers in the original sow housing were poured nearly 6 in. wide and 40 in. tall, explains Patton. To improve air movement, most pen dividers for sows and grow-finish pigs are now 4 in. wide, 2 ft. tall, topped with three horizontal sucker rods spaced and welded 6 in. apart. "There's no repair in those buildings," Patton assures.
But, concrete on outside walls tends to be cold. They dealt with that problem in a sow house constructed in 1984, which had 3-ft. concrete walls. "We'd have layers of frost on those walls for weeks at a time. It was absolutely miserable for the hogs in that building," Patton remembers.
So the challenge was to get the durability of concrete, yet keep it fairly warm. That challenge requires insulation of some sort. Some contractors put insulation on the outside wall then cover it with metal. "We'd tried that. Mice got to that (insulation) in no time."
Culbertson and Patton found their answer in sandwiched, insulated concrete walls introduced by one of their contractors - 4 in. of concrete poured on each side of 2 in. of Styrofoam insulation. They believe their use to be one of the first agricultural applications of the concept.
It solved the frosting problem, making the building much warmer. It worked so well, in fact, they built five more buildings - a farrowing house, a nursery, a grower and two finishers - using the sandwich wall construction.
At first, the concrete guys didn't want to cap the walls, fearing a frost line might occur at the top of the wall. That worried Patton. He was concerned that mice would have access to the insulation. They relinquished and the walls were capped.
Some contractors wedge a 2x2 block to hold the insulation down 2 in. until enough concrete is poured to hold the Styrofoam in place. The blocks are pulled to cap the wall. Another contractor made a wishbone-type yoke that could be draped over the insulation and tied to the rebar to hold it in place.
It's also important to use a closed-cell, extruded Styrofoam, Patton explains. "The old, white, beadboard insulation won't work. It absorbs too much water and you lose the R-value." He estimates the R-value of the 2-in. product used is about R10.
The heavier, insulated concrete sidewalls add to the cost of a building. "We get pretty good bids from the guys that have never poured sandwiched walls," Patton says, kiddingly. "But we're running out of contractors!"
Wall & Ceiling Insulation Fiberglass batt is Patton's first choice in insulation. For retrofitting projects, they sometimes use blown cellulose. "Blown-in cellulose can be tough (corrosive) on gang nailers, particularly the fire retardant stuff," he says.
Since blown fiberglass has become an option, they use it instead. Moisture does not deteriorate the insulation as fast. But, he advises putting baffles in the attic so wind gusts do not rearrange the blown-in insulation.
Rodent Control Any discussion about insulation eventually turns to the biggest culprit responsible for destroying it - mice.
Do mice have a preference? "None that I can see," says Patton. They seem full ready to tackle any kind, and "it's unbelievable how quickly mice can destroy insulation."
There are two key points to controlling this damage. One is to deny mice access, the other is to control the varmints with a solid baiting program.
Denying access is one of the reasons Patton prefers either 3- or 4-ft. concrete walls, because it puts the wood plate, studs and insulation up off the floor. "It's a heckuva lot easier to keep track of what's going on with rodents than if you set the plate at the floor or even 3-4 in. off the floor.
"Historically, glassboard (wall liners) have been pretty effective at stopping mice, but we've got a place or two where they've even chewed through that," he adds.
In older buildings, where pit walls and footings were poured to just floor level, they've found that pouring a 4-in. wide curb at the bottom of the glassboard helps keep mice from getting at the wooden sill.
Another rodent-control step has been to put all electrical wiring, new or remodeled, in plastic conduit. "We thought we made a big jump when we went to all UF (underground feeder) wire, but we still had trouble with the mice chewing it. They'll get a wire someplace if they're bad enough - especially where they go through a double wall."
Another rodent-control measure is to only put plywood on one side of room divider walls "so they don't have a place to dwell in." At the new B-G/farrowing unit, they poured 4-ft. concrete walls between rooms, then put studs 16-in. o.c. with fiberglass sheeting riveted to the stud walls. "I think it will be there forever. There's no place for mice to get in," he adds.
"The philosophy here is - whoever is responsible for a building is also responsible for its rodent control," Patton continues. "The secret is, when you see the first one or two, you've got to get on it (baiting) right away.
"Once they've got a hole someplace, you've got trouble. They'll get into a 2x4-stud wall. And once they get their passages to where they can run stud-to-stud-to-stud, you've got a nightmare.
"Baiting has got to be part of your routine. Just like feeding the hogs, you've got to feed the mice," Patton says.
The ideal time to bait is when a room is empty, washed and drying out. All feeders are empty, washed and the feed source is shut off. The room is left to dry out for a couple of days. "If you don't put the bait out then, it's a real missed opportunity," he adds.
They also have a professional pest control service come once a month - mostly to maintain bait stations to control rats around the buildings and bins. An option is to simply assign the task to someone specifically as part of his/her job responsibilities. "The same baits are available to everyone," says Patton, noting the key is establishing an effective baiting timetable.
Electrical Challenges Patton says plastic components have helped make substantial strides in sealing, protecting electrical systems.
"When I first came here most of my time was spent on electrical problems," he says. They've recently removed the last of the old bakelight lighting fixtures and put in incandescent fixtures. In nursery and farrowing rooms, where lights are on all day, sealed, fluorescent fixtures were installed.
"The fluorescent fixtures, even though they are sealed, they're a little bit of a nuisance to maintain - but from an efficiency standpoint, you almost have to put them in," he says.
He's also sold on using plastic conduit wherever possible. Comparatively speaking, he says it's relatively fast and easy to work with. "Remember, it takes a lot of time to unroll UF wire, to get the tangles out, to pound the staples in - usually with dust falling in your eyes, to strip the ends," Patton says. "Cost-wise, especially if you've got to buy a running board to nail the UF wire to, you might just as well put conduit in. The cost is about the same."
One of the tricky parts about working with plastic conduit is getting the bends right. For the new B-G facility, they bought a commercial bender complete with heating elements ("like a toaster"), a miter and gauge rig to guide the bends. It was pretty slow but with some practice they got better at it.
By the time they went back to remodeling at the home farm, a couple of the employees had put aside the miter box and gauge and, wearing gloves, simply heated the plastic conduit until it was warm and flexible, positioned it where they needed it, bent it to fit, then held it until it cooled.
Ventilation Errors "We have probably always erred on the side of under-ventilating," Patton says. "I'm not so sure, over the years, that's probably cost us a lot more money than over-ventilating - because of the deterioration it causes."
There is a natural tendency to keep rooms warm without having a heater that runs too much, so fans are turned down, humidity goes up. "How will that affect pig health, treatment costs, and what does the moisture do to building and equipment?" he asks.
Using a worst-case scenario, Patton calculated the cost of running a 60,000 Btu heater for 24 hours/day, non-stop. If LP costs 45 cents, the $6-8/day cost would likely pay off.
Patton has also faced natural ventilation challenges with curtains and butterfly doors over the years.
They have several grow-finish barns with curtains and if Patton had his way, they all would have them. "Curtains seal much better (than doors) because you eliminate all of the cracks," he explains.
Keeping the mice out of the curtains is the biggest challenge and Patton believes he could solve it by equipping every barn with a timer so the person responsible for the barn could simply hit a button to raise the curtain fully to chase the mice out, then drop back again. "Raising and lowering them is the only solution," Patton notes, admitting it's been on his "to-do" list for two years.
Call in the Bulldozer? Ask Culbertson at what point he'd give up on a building, and he'll tell you straight: "I don't know when; we've never given up on a building. But, I'm sometimes afraid we at Geneseo Pork, and we in the hog industry, may use some buildings longer than we should."
The bottom line - if the building's still functional, they'll renovate it. "We've got two buildings that need new metal. One is a finisher, built about 1970 - 28 years old - I'd do it in a flash," he states. "There's very little in there that we would do differently."
Given the chance, he admits he might build it somewhere else, or design it as a wean-finish building. "But, I wouldn't walk away from it just because of the cost of new metal."
Patton sites the oldest building on the farm as the best candidate for the bulldozer. Originally used as a sow-litter unit, it has the poorest structural integrity but they recently remodeled it anyway. "It holds 720 pigs and turns 21/2 times/year, so it finishes about 1,800 annually. It's hard to put money into a building like that, but it's hard to walk away from, too."
"You make decisions differently when you're 25-30 years old than you do when you're 50," Culbertson points out. "If you're trying to develop a transition (of ownership) plan and the question is whether to put new metal on a building or build a new one from scratch, the answers change. It may not be a difficult question for George Brauer, but at some point in time it becomes hard for Dave Culbertson to keep building new buildings."