FARMINGTON — Construction of a new style of barn, a roofed, heavy-use-area bedded-pack, is progressing on the grounds of Sandy River Farms, owned by Herbert “Bussie” and Brenda York. 

“Heavy-use-area bedded-pack” is a term designated by a federal program which provides funding and help with the structures’ planning and engineering through the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Instead of being tied in stalls, cows are housed in open pens on both sides of the structure and eat from a feed alley stretching down the middle. The bedded pack on which they rest is part of a compost process.

Sawdust for bedding is distributed through the pens. Instead of cleaning out stalls, the sawdust and cow waste is rototilled regularly to create an organic compost pile. It sits on a concrete floor and grows, creating a soft, heated pile for the cattle. The pile is emptied from the pen once a year, and the feed alley is cleaned every day, York said.

“It makes a good, saleable product to either use on the farm or sell,” he said.

Farmers always have the expense of bedding — an estimated $10,000 of sawdust from a Stratton mill is bought by the truckload, he said.

There are 6-foot cement walls and slots with curtains that can be rolled up in summer for air ventilation and down in the winter to retain heat, he said.

The structure is roofed for shelter and to prevent too much moisture from disrupting the compost process. The building is also partially open to increase airflow so as to evaporate moisture off the top, Jade Gianforte, a conservationist with the Farmington Natural Resources Conservation Service, said.

Proper management of the bedded pack is crucial. If regularly maintained, the compost bed is safe for the animals. However, if the farmer doesn’t stay on top of it, it could become a soupy mess, she said.

Cows appear to like the open style of the pen, as well as the heat and softness of the bedding pack, she said.

Birthing cows suffer fewer leg bruises when they rise, York said. Newborns can get up easier as it is soft, but still firm enough to get their footing.

But it is not just about cow comfort or compost.

“The main point is to protect natural resources on the farm,” Gianforte said of the program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Bill Program.

The 600-acre farm, situated next to the Sandy River, has small tributaries that run down to the river, she said.

There is no runoff with this structure, she said.

Although the program isn’t new, it is new to thier program, Gianforte said.

York joins other farmers from Franklin County who have created the structures, she said.

It is a cost-share program. Seventy-five percent of costs are covered by the government, while the farmer pays 25 percent, which may include materials and labor provided by the farmer, she said.

Local NRCS conservationists Gianforte and Paul Hersey, who recently retired, have worked with York. Their labor, along with the planning and engineering, are all a free service, she said.

In order to be eligible for the program, farmers need to submit an application and be near a natural resource that would benefit from the new structure.

There is a backlog of applicants, she said.

When the Yorks lost their barn and home to a fire caused by lightning in 1995, they rebuilt all they could afford, York said. 

Although they have continued to create new facilities over the past 20 years, their herd has grown — now at 200 head, 90 of them milking cows. Room was needed to care for the farm’s dry cows and calves.

They intended to build more facilities this year but learned of this program, he said. He did some research and contacted farms in the Midwest for more information.

York went before the town Planning Board this summer and started construction this fall on the 98-foot wide, 84-foot long structure that would hold 60 cows.

He sees it as a good move for farms, but he admits there’s more work to be done.

“It is still new and we’re still learning,” he said.

[email protected]