Spacious agricultural shelter with a white canopy, supported by wooden pillars, housing hay bales both round and rectangular, with an open gravel ground in the foreground, set against a backdrop of trees and a distant hill.

This article was first featured in Intent Magazine and demonstrates the value of strong fabric shelters on commercial farming. A material we test and continuously innovate at SmartShelters. 

Fabric structures are becoming an attractive option in livestock production, especially on hog farms.

Versatile, cost-effective and user-friendly, fabric structures have found favor in agricultural markets.

Over the past nearly 20 years, fabric-covered buildings have been appearing with increasing frequency on U.S. and Canadian farmsteads. Featuring high-peaked, bright-white covers that span 500 feet and more, these Quonset-shaped clearspan structures stand out like low-flying clouds in their pastoral settings.

“Depending on where you are, it’s not hard to find a fabric building,” says Drew Elder, marketing/communications director for Saskatoon, Saskatchewan-based Cover-All Building Systems, the largest North American manufacturer of steel-framed fabric buildings. “You’re starting to see them all over the place.”

The highest concentrations of agricultural fabric structures seem to be located throughout the Midwest and in central and western Canada. Farmers in those areas are drawn to the ease with which these structures can be installed, the low costs of operating them, and the pleasant, outdoors-like environments they create—for farmers and livestock alike.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that an ever-expanding field of manufacturers is now competing for the ever- tightening agricultural dollar. Even so, fabric-building manufacturers have plenty of reasons for optimism. First, the fabrics used to make these structures continue to improve; they’re stronger, and they feature more potent UV protection, tear resistance and flame-retardant properties. What’s more, on- the-farm applications for these structures are virtually growing by the day.

“The ingredients are all there for covered buildings to take a bigger share of the buildings market,” says Jason Owen, president of AS1 Cover Buildings in Templeton, Iowa. “Over the next five years, I think the fabric cover business, overall, is going to start taking a bigger piece of that pie.”

Three dogs resting on gravel under a large curved canopy with tall trees in the background.

Fabric on the farm: a brief history

Hog farmers were the first to use fabric structures. Of European descent, these so-called “hoop buildings” first arrived in Canada, then migrated south to the United States in the late 1970s.

The early adopters of hoop buildings turned to them as a low-cost alternative to traditional wood and steel containment facilities. Yet as the years passed, hog producéis noticed a bonus benefit: Hog populations raised and housed inside hoop buildings exhibited better health than those housed in other types of dwellings. 

The primary reason: better air quality. Hogs are highly susceptible to respiratory disease.

The high-peaked clearspan hoop structures naturally provide their inhabitants with a steady supply of fresh air.

“You can get fresh air into the building and it doesn’t cost you anything. Whereas if you have a different type of confinement operation, you’ve got fans running 24 hours a day,” Owen says.

“So if you go into a covered building with a high peak that offers good ventilation, you’re going to have healthier hogs, because they aren’t sitting in their own air, and you won’t have those extra costs.”

Other types of livestock producers soon caught on to the positive attributes of fabric structures, which now are used to house virtually every type of animal—chickens, sheepgoat, cows, horses and even ostriches. Fabric shelters also now- are commonly used for grain, hay and equipment storage.

Today, by many reports, the dairy and equine sectors of the agricultural industry are exhibiting the strongest growth. In addition to natural ventilation, dairy farmers and horse handlers favor two other fabric- structure characteristics: light transmission and sound suppression.

Today’s fabric structures are typically made from white 12-ounce woven polyethylene, which allows light—not heat—to pass through. In fact, for the dairy industry, “our biggest selling feature is the natural lighting,” says Brad Adrian, general manager of Winkler Canvas Ltd. in Winkler, Manitoba. “The animals aren’t afraid to go into the building. In a traditional building, the animals come in from the light outdoors to a dark building and it puts stress on them.”

Aerial view of a green arched hay barn on a grassy field overlooking a vast wetland with distant ocean views.

Sound is another stress-inducer. The ambient noise inside steel structures has been likened to constant television static. Meanwhile, from above, the relentless drumming sound produced by rain or hail unnerves the animals—and their handlers. The result: unproductive training sessions for horses, and lower milk production from cows.

Says Owen: “I had a dairy man in Nebraska who milks in a steel building tell me that if it rains at all, there’s almost no reason for him to milk that day because the stress on the roof spooks the cows and their milk production drops to almost zero.”

Conversely, some dairy farmers have attributed milk-production increases to their animals’ quieter, brighter fabric-covered confines. “Many of our dairy farmers are reporting that their animals aren’t stressed and they’re actually producing more,”Adrian says.

In addition to natural light and pleasant acoustics, fabric buildings also offer natural climate-control characteristics, thanks, in large part, to the polyethylene’s high UV resistance.

Spacious covered shelter with a tilled earth floor, supported by wooden pillars and a curved white roof, with a scenic view in the distance.

According to a University of Wisconsin study, the temperature inside a covered building with a polyethylene cover typically will be 10 to 15 degrees cooler than the temperature outdoors in the summer, and 10 to 15 degrees warmer in the winter.

“When dairy farmers walk into their dairy barns, it’s like being in the outdoors indoors,” Elder says. He concedes that the fabric structure is still an underexposed cover option in some agricultural areas, which long have been dominated by steel and wood. However, the more of them that appear on the landscape, the more their naturally user-friendly environments help these lesser-known buildings sell themselves. “People still like to kick tires,” Elder says. “Often times, what helps convince potential buyers is to have them walk inside one of the buildings and experience it for themselves.”

Hoop structures provide safe storage for grain. An ever-expanding field of manufacturers now competes for the agricultural dollar.

Up fast, up long

Of course, fabric-building manufacturers and dealers have several other tools of persuasion in their sales arsenals. Perhaps top among them is the ease and speed with which these buildings can be installed.

Generally, fabric-building manufacturers offer a standard lineup of building widths, which can be made to any length. Winkler Canvas, for example, has outfitted many dairy operators with its increasingly popular 72-foot-wide building. This structure features a double-truss frame made of five-inch galvanized-steel; the frames often are mounted to pre-cast concrete blocks that are submerged in trenches on either side of the building. Once the foundation is in place, says Adrian, “a crew can put up a 72’by-l 50- foot building in two days.”

Indoor riding arena featuring a large brown horse with a rider seated atop, an older man standing beside them in a plaid shirt and cap, and a resting dog nearby on the groomed sandy ground, all framed by the curved white canopy of the structure.

Among the buildings offered by Cover- All are the Arch Building Series, which are available in 18- to 72-foot widths, and the Titan Building Series, which are available in widths from 30 to 160 feet. The company, which sells its buildings through a North America-wide dealer network, recently installed a 120-by-360-foot dairy barn in Montana in 10 days.

Hog barns typically are the runts of the fabric-building litter; they range in size generally from 20-by-40 feet to 50- by-80 feet. Hawkeye Steel Products Inc., based in Houghton, Iowa, has sold hundreds of these modestly proportioned structures since it entered the fabric- building market in 1997. The company, which offers eight building widths and sells through a network of dealers, often concedes installation duties to do-it-yourselfers.

“Lots of times the farmers want to put them up themselves,” says Tom Wenstrand, president of Hawkeye Steel. “If you have light-construction skills and the proper tools, these buildings are relatively easy to erect.”

Once installed, farmers are left with a virtually “zero-energy” building, according to Owen. The structures heat and cool naturally and require, at most, minimal lighting. “If you look at it on paper, the dollar output, versus, the dollar return, nothing gets you in the black quicker than a cover building,” Owen says.

Better yet, today’s fabric buildings not only go up fast, they stay up long. Early fabric buildings featured 6-ounce woven- fabric covers and generally had seven- year life expectancies. These days, however, manufacturers*generally use 12-ounce woven fabrics, which are designed to naturally shed water and snow and stand up to the most formidable snow load requirements. According to Cover-All’s Elder, a 10-by- 10-foot section of the company’s Dura Weave fabric can support 17 tons. “It’s really strong stuff,” he says.

As a result, manufacturers routinely offer 15-year warranties for the fabric. Winkler Canvas covers its structures with Nova- Thene, a 12-ounce woven fabric that’s manufactured by Montreal-based Intertape Polymer Group. “We give our covers a 15- year pm-rated warranty,” Adrian says, “but we expect them to go 20 to 25 years.”

Plus, the fabric component accounts for only roughly a third of the overall cost of the building. And the cost of recovering a building is generally dwarfed by the cost of re-roofing or re-shingling a comparably sized traditional structure. “The replacement effort and cost is not a significant factor,” Wenstrand says. “In some cases, you can pull a tarp off and put another one on in about a day.”

Not just for livestock anymore

No doubt, ASI Cover Buildings, Cover- All, Hawkeye Steel, Winkler Canvas and many other manufacturers can trace their fabric-building roots and initial growth back to agricultural shelters. But, by some accounts, the agricultural industry no longer represents the greatest growth potential for manufacturers. That designation goes to the industrial, commercial and recreational industries, which offer a seemingly bottomless reservoir of applications.

AS1 and Hawkeye Steel, for example, have had success selling cover buildings to state departments of transportation, who want cost-effective and environmentally friendly solutions for road-salt containment. Fabric buildings also are being used with greater frequency on construction sites and as sports and recreational facilities. “These markets are just huge.” Wenstrand says.

Which is not to say that the agricultural markets have dried up. In fact, the agricultural applications for fabric structures continue to grow like so much well-nourished com. Last year, for example, Winkler Canvas introduced a fabric bam on ski is. These structures, made in 14-by-24- and 30-by- 50-foot sizes, enable farmers to run three types of animals—say, chickens, sheep and cattle—through a pasture. The animals follow their barns; the manure from one animal creates feed for the next animal. Winkler also offers a small calf shelter, which provides the youngsters in the herd with the extra protection they require.

“The number of applications just keep growing every day,” Wenstrand says. Whether it’s on or off the farm, finding new fabric-building applications, he adds, “is just a matter of using your imagination.”