Building a new freestall barn on your dairy is a major investment that requires careful planning and decision-making. One of those decisions is whether to move forward with a steel-frame or wood-frame barn.

Ambrosius ashley
Agricultural Marketing and Customer Relations / Bayland Buildings Inc.

Let’s take a few minutes to understand the differences between the two and how this decision can affect your facility in the long run.


When evaluating the options of steel versus wood for a freestall barn frame, one of the most common questions brought up by the farmer is cost. When some people hear the word “steel,” they automatically think higher cost, but that is not necessarily the case. The gap in price between the two types of structures may not be as far apart as you assume.

The up-front costs and the long-term costs are both areas you should be looking at when weighing out your options between a wood or steel structure. A wood-frame building will typically be less on the front end due to the lower price in materials and less time in manufacturing the building.

A pre-manufactured steel structure usually requires additional engineering hours put into the designing of the project. These hours and materials may create a gap in price between the two projects. However, over the long run, steel frames offer advantages that should be considered, such as dependability and cleanliness.


With the test of time, steel-frame engineered buildings hold up better to snow load, therefore reducing the risk of collapse. Additionally, you may spend less time and money maintaining the building, and your insurance premium may be less expensive with a steel structure.

Construction time

The manufacturing time for a wood-frame building is typically much less than steel options. Wood can be manufactured and stockpiled for inventory months in advance to your project starting. On the other hand, with a metal building, these pieces are custom fabricated to your specific design.

Once you sign the dotted line on your construction project, the building fabrication process begins. In turn, it may take eight to 12 weeks before your building frames hit the construction site. After the materials are completed and ready to be erected, steel-framed buildings go together just as quickly or more quickly than wood-framed buildings.


Do not discount longevity when choosing which type of building to construct. A steel building will last significantly longer. Let me break it down for you. Steel is steel. It will last for hundreds of years. Wood – well, it is wood. Green-treated wood has many different chemicals infused into it to prevent rotting. The methods for this have changed in recent years.

Previously, the industry used arsenate to prevent wood decay but, about 15 years ago, the industry stopped using this chemical in lumber used to erect any type of housing due to health concerns. Today, multiple chemicals are used in treated wood to compensate for arsenate.

These new chemicals contain higher levels of copper. Copper has a higher corrosion rate, in turn, taking away from some of the longevity of treated lumber. Some wood builders have started to use plastic-coated posts to help with longevity of the wood.

Whether to choose steel or wood support columns is another decision to look at when considering your options. The advantage of steel in this case is that stalls and gates are attached by welding, therefore giving it a strong, durable hold to stand up to wear and tear from cattle.

On a wood support column, these fixtures are attached by bolts that at some point in time will break away from the mounting systems.

With wood exterior columns on curtain sidewalls, the rain and sun will slowly deteriorate the wood. In a natural-ventilated barn, typically there is an open ridge allowing rain to access the structural roofing members. In wood-structure barns, this opening is allowing the rain direct access to the wood, which in time will weather and weaken it.

Also, keep in mind we all get a little clumsy and careless when the workload is high and we are rushing to get things done. When this is the case, what happens? The skid loaders bump and bang into the columns. It happens on every farm. When the columns are steel, there will be far less damage to the building.

Wood columns, on the other hand, may get beaten and chipped away, limiting the strength and longevity of the column. On the bright side, if significant damage is done to the building, the wood building will definitely be a less expensive fix.

Design considerations

How important is ventilation to you? When choosing between a wood structure or steel structure for a freestall barn, ventilation is a factor to consider. In a steel building, you have the ability to have far fewer support columns. Each obstruction will play a role in the air flow in your barn.

The more obstructions, the more breaks in the continuous air speed. This is just a thought to consider.

Maintenance and cleanliness

Both barns will have issues with corrosion at some point due to the high moisture and ammonia atmosphere in these environments. Steel frames should be properly prepared with a protective primer and paint coatings to help eliminate as much corrosion as possible.

The protective coating may need to be reapplied at some point in its lifetime to allow for the longest life expectancy. In a wood-frame barn, galvanized clips are used to connect the wood purlins to the frames. These are lightweight and will also corrode.

I truly believe that when building a steel-frame freestall barn, there needs to be a combination of steel and wood to allow for the longest life expectancy. Any type of metal-on-metal will create natural corrosion. By placing steel purlins on a steel frame, the building will eat away at itself.

When a wood purlin is placed against the steel, you are eliminating this from occurring. You will also eliminate the metal screws from deteriorating the purlins when they are screwed into wood purlins versus metal purlins.

A steel-frame building also discourages birds from nesting in your facility because there are fewer areas for them to build their homes. But as we all know and have experienced, those birds can be creative and still find places and ways to make it happen.

Some steel builders put their purlins on top of the steel frames. Many years ago, we started placing wood purlins in between the I-beam frames. This has cut down bird nesting tremendously and is now a common practice.

As you make plans to construct new buildings on your dairy, think about the pros and cons of these different options and how they can be part of reaching your goals and carrying your operation forward for years to come.  end mark

Ashley Ambrosius