Outstanding in the field: fabric finds a home on the range

Agricultural operations are reaping the benefits of innovative structural solutions for crops, grain and livestock.

Twenty years ago, the Calhoun family started another business on their beef farm: selling tarps for hay storage. Somewhere around 1996 or ’97, president Jeremy Calhoun recalls, the aging farmers who were their customers said, “I can’t pull these covers over the hay anymore. Could you put a steel frame up?”

So began Calhoun Super Structures Ltd.’s entrance into the world of fabric structures for the agricultural industry. Today, the Ontario, Canada-based company makes fabric-and-steel structures for agricultural, equine and commercial (manufacturing and warehousing) markets. It also provides salt-storage buildings for government agencies and corporations in icy climates. Agriculture remains about 50 percent of the company’s business.

Fabric structures have also found their way onto the farm to provide shade for livestock. In February, Accu-Steel Fabric-Covered Building Solutions of Templeton, Iowa, introduced its Accu-Steel Cattle Cabana. The 50-foot-wide structure is designed to be a permanent structure that provides a low-stress environment for cows. According to president Jason Owen, people keeping horses, sheep and swine have expressed interest in the Cattle Cabana as well.

“We look at agriculture as two segments,” Owen says, noting that agriculture comprises about 30 percent of Accu-Steel’s business. “We started as an ag-based company. We’ve moved into more commercial [operations], but are still agriculture based.” In addition to cattle-specific buildings, fertilizer and grain storage represent a big part of Accu-Steel’s business.

“Fabric buildings historically have really worked well for dry fertilizer storage using a volumetric blending system, but not for a tower-blending system. Before, [ag-based operations] were locked into a more traditional, wood-type building if they wanted to use certain types of blending equipment. We now have products that can be designed around that equipment,” says Owen. For example, Accu-Steel can create fabric-based structures for grain that support conveyors and catwalks.

Custom coverage

Gidco Ag Design & Consulting of La Quinta, Calif., primarily provides fabric products to protect crops from sun, wind, hail, extreme temperatures and pests, allowing farmers to grow more organically. Its products also are used to start seedlings in greenhouses.

“Some of what we do is permanent,” says owner Gideon Cohn. “We also provide material shade or screen over large acreages of crops from beginning of the plant through harvest. It’s used seasonally and moved to the next field.” Growers put money into crop covers, Cohn says, “so they can grow crops in the off season when the market is better, which offsets the cost.”

ClearSpan Fabric Structures started in 1979 as a company specifically targeting agricultural products and supplies. Today, more than 50 percent of its business, which extends worldwide, is related to agriculture.

“We have our roots in agriculture,” says Joe Teixeira, truss arch specialist for the Dyersville, Iowa-based company. “As years went by, we got into manufacturing structures and moved into broader categories of structures.”

Agricultural commodities such as grain and fertilizer account for about 30 percent of the business at Legacy Building Solutions in South Haven, Minn.

“We have been selling and installing fabric structures for 18 years, and within the last five years started manufacturing rigid, steel-framed structures,” CEO Ben Fox says. “We are working with large co-ops or commodity-type businesses. They have very specific needs in what they want.

“Our specialty is the very customized and larger structures,” Fox adds. “We have begun to see a shift to more customized and larger structures. I think we fit a very specialized niche within that market. Other fabric building companies and manufacturers have standard widths of 70, 80, 90, 100 feet. We can design the exact size right to the quarter-inch with varying roof pitches, offset peaks, lean-tos, building connections and varying leg sizes.”

Additionally, Fox says, Legacy can design a grain wall that handles the pressure of millions of bushels of grain and frames that support a conveyor.

Natural benefits

Fabric structures have gained a foothold across industries as advances in fabric and engineering technology have moved them beyond the realm of the weekend art festival. And agricultural operations, from small farms to corporations in large-scale commodities, have increasingly recognized the multiple benefits of fabric structures.

A light environment saves money by reducing the need for artificial light during daytime hours, and benefits livestock operations by offering animals a less stressful environment. Scientific studies have shown that animals in high-stress environments, such as confined spaces, have compromised immune systems and can develop pathogens that can be dangerous to consumers of beef and dairy products. Light-filled spaces create a much less stressful environment and, as Teixeira notes, “None of our structures have interior support columns. It’s a completely free space, so it’s a more efficient use of the inside of the structure, compared to a pole barn.”

Fabric structures with vents and open ends or sides allow airflow, which provides a better environment for both animals and commodities.

“The natural ventilation that can be achieved with a fabric building is really unmatched by any other building system,” Owen says. “A polyethylene covering gives us a bright environment inside the building that is typically drier than under a steel roof in which water condensates.”

A dry environment particularly benefits commodities storage. Storing fertilizers from precipitation also eliminates groundwater contamination from runoff.

For Legacy Building Solutions, Fox says, “Speed of construction is another advantage of our structures.” And, he adds, fabric buildings are good solutions in corrosive environments such as fertilizer storage.

Other advantages of fabric structures include portability, flexibility in use, low maintenance, large clearances for equipment and lower construction costs than traditional structures.

“Cost is a driving force,” Teixeira says. “Also, there are animal husbandry concerns that people have nowadays compared to 20 years ago. Farms are more attuned to animal health, not only for common sense reasons, but also because of groups such as PETA.” In addition to creating a more humane environment for livestock, Teixeira adds, fabric structures offer an environmental advantage in that they can be more readily recycled than a hard structure.

“All of what we are doing is pretty green,” Cohn says. “Protecting crops from pests and the harsh weather conditions reduces the use of pesticides and herbicides.” And, he adds, tailoring light transmission with specific colors enhances crops without genetic alteration. Furthermore, the crop shades can be manually or automatically retracted, fixed or removable.

Future demand

“There’s always research being done and new products and new ideas,” Cohn says. In addition to hiring a market research firm to plan ahead, Gidco has been talking to growers one on one. “[Their outlook] seems to be very positive,” Cohn says. “It looks like there’s going to be a lot of growth.”

Calhoun expects the primary expansion in the agricultural market will be related to fertilizer and large cash crops because prices for commodities are increasing; corn and grain are being used in alternative fuels; and there are more offshore agricultural facilities, especially in Africa and South America. Plus, he notes, the increase in composting means an increased need for covers to combat runoff, an environmental issue with governmental mandates.

“I believe agriculture is going to continue to require specific design and engineering solutions,” Owen says. “It’s going to require partnerships with customers.” He foresees a need for buildings that accommodate cross-conveyors and that have customized sidewall openings for truck traffic.

“The ag industry is going to have to continue to reinvent itself to become more efficient,” he adds. “Buildings are a part of that, and fabric buildings provide a unique price point and environment that gives the ag industry a tool to solve some of the problems they will be facing. We have to continue to reinvent ourselves and our products to meet industry-specific demands.”

Janice Kleinschmidt is a freelance writer and editor based in San Diego, Calif.

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