The Elbert Files: Building high-tech cattle barns
Friday, May 24, 2013 7:00 AM
Bill Rubis and Mark Ehresman are probably the smartest construction guys I’ll ever know.
Nearly four years ago when their industry was still in free-fall, home builders Rubis of Ankeny and Ehresman of Huxley created a niche business called Iowa Beef Systems to design and build high-tech cattle barns using concrete and steel.
Their timing could not have been better.
The Iowa cattle industry, which had been in decline for decades, began a resurgence in 2006, fueled in large part by the growing ethanol industry.
Iowa Beef Systems got on board in late 2009, and since then it has built more than 100 high-tech cattle confinement systems with more than 2 million square feet of covered space. The company has about 50 employees, which will grow to near 300, including subcontractors, during the summer.
It’s not unusual for one of Iowa Beef Systems’ cattle barns to cost more than $1 million.
Better yet, payment is typically made within a day or two. “Because of the packer laws,” Rubis explained, “farmers are used to paying within 48 hours and being paid within 48 hours.”
The timely cash flow has allowed Iowa Beef Systems to grow debt free.
The two men got into barn building in part because they enjoy working with concrete, which is the perfect building material for handling cattle and their waste.
Iowa Beef Systems’ barns have two levels, an upper level for livestock and a 10-foot high waste collection area below. Small slats in the floor allow waste to fall to the lower level as cattle move around.
Manure accumulates at the rate of about one foot per month, which means it has to be pumped out about every six months or so, when it is then recycled as fertilizer for nearby cropland, Rubis said.
Iowa Beef Systems’ high-tech barns feature several innovations, including multi-layered (wood, felt and steel) roofs that are rust resistant, diamond pattern concrete floors that prevent hooves from slipping, and sides that have high southern exposures to let in winter sun and low northern exposures to provide summer shade.
Many Iowa farmers got out of cattle feeding decades ago, when industry economics and practices, fueled by cheap corn and environmental concerns, favored large herds at out-of-state locations. Between 1975 and 2005 Iowa’s cattle population fell from about 4 million head to 1.5 million.
Today, Iowa’s herd is back up around 4 million. The reason is new economics and environmental practices, both of which are incorporated in Iowa Beef Systems’ buildings, said Bill Couser, who feeds 5,000 cattle in Story County.
Ethanol pushed up the price of corn, making it too expensive to ship to distant cattle feeders, Couser said. Plus, ethanol creates byproducts in the form of high-value nutrients that make good cattle feed.
High corn prices have also increased land values, which in an odd way is good for the cattle industry, Rubis said. When farmland sells for $17,000 an acre, he explained, it is less expensive to bring a new generation into the cattle business than it is to buy additional farmland.
Couser, for example, feeds 5,000 cattle on just 11 acres of environmentally protected land. The real advantage for high-tech cattle feeding is that animals gain weight much quicker in protective buildings than in traditional feedlots.
Cattle in open feedlots are more stressed and only gain two pounds or less per day, while cattle in protected barns gain four to five pounds a day, Rubis said.
That’s a big advantage for the producer, because the animal gains twice as much weight on far less feed.
Rubis figures there is a seven-year payback on Iowa Beef Systems barns, which are designed to last 50 years.
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