Farm Layout and Infrastructure
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When starting a new farm enterprise, taking time to thoroughly consider farm layout and infrastructure could pay big dividends for years to come. Careful planning can help ensure that key infrastructure is well-designed, durable, laid out for efficiency, appropriately sized and convenient for day to day use. It’s also important to know the complete set of infrastructure that’s required for a given enterprise so that it can all be included in the planning and budgeting. The purpose of this article is to give an overview of the types of infrastructure that might be needed for a farm, and some general thoughts about design and layout.
OVERALL FARM LAYOUT
When possible, make careful decisions about the location of key pieces of infrastructure to maximize efficiency. This type of planning should consider the location of buildings, shelters, roads, paths, paddocks, utilities, etc. Think about the workflow that will take place on your farm, and how equipment, people, products and materials will move from one location to another. For example, a cattle farmer would consider how animals will move efficiently from one field or paddock to another, to handling areas, and to loading areas. She will also think about how to efficiently move hay and other feedstocks. Obviously, land characteristics such as topography and vegetation may limit options, or there may be existing infrastructure that cannot be easily relocated.
Whether raising plants or animals, water is a necessary component of agricultural production. Assuming the source is of sufficient quantity and quality, the next consideration is the infrastructure to deliver the water to the crop or animal or other end use point. This might be as simple as a spigot and garden hose, or could involve a complex system of pipes, pumps, tanks, electrical wiring, switches, timers, filters, injectors, solar panels, etc. In addition to crop and livestock needs, farm planning should consider how water will be supplied for equipment cleaning, worker hygiene, crop protection sprays, and other needs. In some cases this might involve two or more independent sources, such as pumping water out of a stream or pond for livestock, a well to irrigate crops, and a municipal source for hygiene needs.
Properly built fencing has a significant cost. However, the cost of improperly built fencing could be even greater, especially if it fails and/or has to be rebuilt. The design and layout of fencing will vary considerably based on its purpose. For example, containing poultry is dramatically different from containing goats or excluding deer. Other factors to consider include size and location of gates for equipment access, water access for animals, workflow, and traffic patterns (pedestrian, vehicle and animal). Following time-tested designs and using standard proven materials will almost certainly give superior results compared to improvising.
Some species of livestock have very specific housing needs. Well designed housing provides protection from predators and the elements and allows for convenient access. Contact your County Extension Center for information about standard designs that are efficient and durable. There are several factors to consider when choosing a location for livestock housing, such as efficiency/workflow, access to foraging areas, topography, drainage, etc.
Some livestock species require handling facilities for performing certain tasks such as vaccinating, sorting, or loading onto transport vehicles. Durable facilities that are conveniently located will pay dividends for years to come. Safety considerations, both for the animals and the handlers, should be paramount.
HAY & FEED STORAGE
Livestock feed and hay must be stored properly to maintain quality and prevent contamination or spoilage. Bagged feed should be stored in a location that is protected from moisture, and separated from fuels and pesticides. Bulk grains require specialized bins. Feed and grain storage should include plans for rodent exclusion and/or management. Hay can be stacked on the ground in an area where the soil drains well. For farm layout, consider how the feed/hay will be moved from field to storage to animal feeding areas.
PLANT PRODUCTION STRUCTURES
If the operation will involve greenhouses, cold frames, high tunnels or other plant production structures, then there are several variables to consider. In almost all cases, a location with access to water and full sun is essential. Surrounding terrain, structures and trees may influence the optimum orientation to maximize light. If production will happen in-ground, then a location with good soil should be chosen. While electrical service is not essential for unheated high tunnels and cold frames, it may be desirable for the labor intensive task of opening and closing ventilation curtains. Electrical service may also be needed to run fans, lights or other equipment. Many greenhouse heaters run on liquid propane, necessitating the use of a tank and vehicle access to refill it. Also consider how the flow of equipment and materials into and out of the greenhouse can be efficiently handled.
For a produce or flower operation, there should be a central location where the crop can be brought in from the field and prepared for delivery to market. This could be as simple as an open shelter where produce and/or flowers can be transferred to a transport vehicle. In other cases, there may be a need for arranging, washing, repackaging, labeling, storage, refrigeration, or processing.
Equipment such as mowers, tractors, attachments, trailers, etc. will stay in better working order if protected from the elements. A new farmer may want to develop a list of all the equipment required for their operation, and then plan for adequate storage.
Fuel and chemicals have very specific storage needs. Properly designed storage will address theft deterrence, unauthorized access, laws and regulations, employee safety, spill containment, ventilation of harmful fumes, fire hazard and other risks. Storage temperature can also affect the efficacy and longevity of certain products.
It can be very beneficial to have the capacity to store quantities of certain materials such as lumber, fence posts, tubing, cinder blocks, etc. This allows farmers to stock up on free or low cost materials that will be needed at a later date, or to store materials that are only used occasionally. Storing materials in an orderly manner allows for greater efficiency and reduces waste and degradation.
A workshop is a nearly indispensable component of any operation, often serving as the de facto farm headquarters. Ideally the workshop should be able to accommodate equipment maintenance and repairs, plus have workspace for carpentry, metal working or other important tasks. Since the workshop will likely house a significant collection of tools and materials, security and organization are paramount. Safety should also be central to the design and organization of a farm workshop. In some cases it may be workable for the workshop structure to serve other needs such as providing storage space for equipment and chemicals.
A reliable internet connection is an essential component of many modern farming operations. Access can vary greatly in rural areas, or even on different parts of a single farm. Farm plans should include defining what is needed and researching the most effective and cost effective way to provide it.
EXECUTING THE PLAN
While planning is highly beneficial, flexibility is also important. Sometimes a selected enterprise won’t pan out or will need to be adjusted. Other times farmers see opportunities that were not initially apparent. As buildings and facilities are constructed, it may become obvious that a minor (or even major) revision would be beneficial or necessary. By building infrastructure in stages, the farmer can retain some flexibility to adjust as the work progresses.
Farmers in general have tremendous ingenuity. They often figure out creative ways to cut costs, re-purpose materials and improvise. However, cutting corners may not pay if the tradeoff is durability, efficiency and/or safety. For almost all types of infrastructure, there are well-established designs, materials and construction methods that have stood the test of time. Careful planning will help ensure that your farm infrastructure is designed and sited to maximize safety, efficiency and cost effectiveness.