Never Too Big

Shops Evolving With Increased Workload, Larger Equipment

Dan Miller
By  Dan Miller , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Joe Nichols and his partner Micheal Oliver never thought they would say their shop could have been bigger. But they do now. (Progressive Farmer photo by Jim Patrico)

Joe Nichols' shop, outside Cadiz, Kentucky, "was-is" an amazing sight. At the time it was built in 2008, the half-million-dollar project yielded 14,500 square feet of work and administrative space. The maintenance area alone measured 8,000 square feet. Even so, the floor space was all but consumed by a John Deere DB60 planter, measuring 60 feet long from tip to tip, and a Deere 9230 -- all 350 horsepower of it -- that pulled into the shop.

The shop's main entrance opened by way of a 42-foot, full-clearance, bifold door. The operations center was wired with a mile and a half of digital cable. The computer server was tied to the outside world with its own high-speed T1 line. The shop was self-sufficient; a backup generator could run it entirely in the event of power failure. Each computer station had its own backup power.

"Some people might say this is over the top," says Joe Nichols, who was farming 17,000 acres at the time. "But we operate on the right side of the decimal points," he added, explaining the thin operating margins by which his Seven Springs Farms functions. "The detail and the organization of this shop are part of that."


Today, Micheal Oliver, Nichols' partner and the day-to-day manager of Seven Springs, which now encompasses more than 36,000 acres, has a different perspective on the facility. "We are normally pretty proactive, but when we built this, we never thought we'd outgrow this shop," Oliver says. But, "we should have made it bigger and longer to accommodate more equipment in the winter."

Seven Springs has added buildings to a machinery yard large enough to hold a medium-sized football stadium. One building, with remote-controlled overhead doors, stores the farm's dozen service trucks. Another, open on the front, has front-to-back slots for 16 semitrailers and trucks.

Office and office-support space has doubled from 3,000 square feet to 6,000 square feet. Seven Springs added accounting and tech employees, and has hired a chief financial officer. "We should have built a bigger conference room," Oliver says.


Among farm building salesmen, there is a well-known pitch: "You might build a shop too small, but you'll never build one too big." It's a clever come-on backed by a dose of reality. The Progressive Farmer has asked farm owners and managers two questions: What's worked? What would you have done differently? Their answers often include some form of the word "bigger."

That was Dean Ahlbrecht's response when we asked him about the 80- by 105-foot shop he built a few years ago, outside Hector, Minnesota. "But that's not really a headline, is it?" he asks.

"I would make it bigger," agrees Ryan Bivens, who farms near Hodgenville, Kentucky. His shop includes 6,000 square feet of floor space, 8,400 square feet of cold storage and 2,000 square feet for offices.

Marty Cummings, a fourth-generation farmer from Malcom, Iowa, says he laid down an important mandate when he built his new shop a few years back. "It better be big enough. We are only doing this once."

Brant Klenk, a longtime employee, and Cummings' son-in-law, Curtis Michalek, oversaw the building of the 100- by 150-foot shop -- 15,000 square feet total with 20-foot sidewalls.

"The greatest overall benefit of our new shop is that it allows us plenty of room to work on multiple pieces of equipment," Michalek says. The farm's older shop, built in 1982, was hardly big enough for an unfolded chisel plow. The new shop has space to unfold a 120-foot sprayer boom. The building is heated by a large geothermal field and lighted by new-tech LED lights. It includes a modern apartment, which has a full kitchen and bath, and boasts its own in-door "deck" with a flat-screen TV.

"We want to make sure that 20 years from now, this shop still fits into the operation," Michalek says.


Michalek remains happy with the functions of the shop. But if he had to do it over, he would consider a door larger than the 18- by 40-foot hydraulic door that opens on the south side of the building. The reason is the farm owns a 40-foot draper head. Getting it into the shop "is doable but not the easiest, either," he says.

There are doors for literally any access need. Hydroswing, at Carlsbad, California, for example, offers agricultural door applications of up to 40 feet tall and 150 feet wide.

Among the doors opening into the shop owned by Future Vision Partnership, outside Kathryn, North Dakota, are three 42-foot-wide Powerlift hydraulic doors. Future Vision and its 37,500-square-foot shop are owned and managed by Vaughn Zacharias and his son, Vance. Their Morton hybrid building features an open-webbed, steel-truss system that creates a clear span of 125 feet. The shop is 300 feet long, including a segregated 40-foot-wide by 125-foot-long wash bay.

Vance wishes now they had installed a garage-style, roll-up door into the wall separating the wash area from the rest of the shop. The Zachariases have found a need to move equipment by forklift into the wash area for cleaning or loading. The bay also has come to be used as a staging area, where even semis can unload.

With inside access between the shop and wash bay, equipment and supplies can be moved under cover, where they're sheltered from the North Dakota weather outside.

Kentucky's Bivens spent a good deal of time planning doors for his shop, too. He has three large doors, but he also installed six service doors. "One shop I visited had only three. It seemed like we were constantly walking extra distances just to get into and out of the shop," Bivens says. "I don't think you can have enough service doors."


Ron Brooks, of Waupaca, Wisconsin, uses the winter sun to cut by 25% the heating costs of his 8,400-square-foot shop.

High on the south 20-foot-high wall of Brooks' shop is a bank of eight 3-foot-tall clerestory windows.

At 44 degrees north latitude, Brooks' farm is west and a bit south of Green Bay, Wisconsin. The shop benefits from solar warming as the sun streams in through those windows from mid-September to mid-April. On Dec. 21, the shortest day of the year, the low angle of the sun delivers rays of warming sunlight that spreads nearly the width of his shop floor.

Brooks would reconsider the artificial lighting inside the shop. He installed T8 fluorescent lights when he built it. T8s are a good move away from the old, inefficient, fast-disappearing 1 1/2-inch diameter T12 tubes. T8s work in a T12 fixture after a ballast change. They are 40% more efficient than T12s. But Brooks has experienced a high failure rate with T8s.

"I wish I had gone with LEDs," he says, explaining he will be installing them in a new free-stall barn he is building later this year. "I love LEDs. They produce a whiter, better working light." He didn't install them originally because they were expensive and, "I thought they might be a fad."

T8 fixtures in a shop application cost about $90 for a ceiling-mounted, six-lamp unit. The fluorescent bulbs cost about $2 each. High bay LED units, of the size that will light shops with 20-foot ceilings, approach $200 each.

LEDs are up to five times more efficient than incandescent lighting and are long-lasting -- 50,000 to 100,000 hours. LEDs emit directional lighting rather than the 360-degree light provided by other bulbs. LEDs have not been, until recently, good fits in dusty and humid facilities. But they have been improved.

Ahlbrecht's Minnesota shop is lighted by 26 six-lamp T5 fluorescent light sets. Although more costly, they are much more efficient than the old, two-lamp T12s that light slowly in cold weather and flicker almost all the time. T5s are 50% more efficient than T12s. In a new installation, T5s are a good choice, especially if LEDs are outside of your budget range.

Ahlbrecht is happy with his lighting configuration. "There are no shadows," he says, walking over to his workbench. "With the windows and the lights and the white pegboard [reflecting light back onto the workspace], I can see what I'm doing."


One feature that crept into discussions about modern shops was unexpected -- bathrooms. In 2008, when we visited the McKenzie, Tennessee, farm owned by the White family, we photographed every inch of the family's 9,000-square-foot shop and office building -- along with 15,000 square feet of partially covered concrete outside.

However, we did not photograph the bathrooms. Who thinks of bathrooms? "We did need to reconfigure the bathrooms," notes Jeff, who adds that the farm has not outgrown its shop equipment area. The reason for the bathroom remodel: "We have more employees," he says.

There are rules about bathrooms, actually. The U.S. Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) mandates the number of toilets for employees -- one for every 15. A toilet must be separated from another by partitions and doors, and the rules require separate facilities for men and women (unless they are single occupancy bathrooms that can be locked from the inside). If you want to lock a bathroom to deal with loafing employees, OSHA helpfully suggests making your policy reasonable and not overly burdensome.

I visited a shop once where the facility was an oil funnel connected to a hose that ran through the wall to the outside. Guess that doesn't work anymore.


Dan Miller