Dairy Calf Housing: Keeping Calves Healthy Indoors

A well-designed dairy calf house will significantly reduce the incidence of scour and pneumonia.

Dairy calves are most susceptible to scour and pneumonia in the first 6-8 weeks of life. Scour is the biggest killer of calves under one month old and pneumonia causes the most deaths in animals over one month of age. We could use all the vaccines in the world but unless we have the housing right we will face an uphill battle to keep calves healthy.

During these crucial early weeks calves will be housed and we must ensure this housing is fit for purpose. A lot of investment goes into cows’ cubicle sheds but how much attention is paid to the calf housing? It should provide sufficient space, ventilation and comfort to allow calves to thrive and also be designed to minimise disease challenge. Every farm has different styles of calf housing from individual pens/hutches to sheds with larger groups of calves. Any of these systems can be successful when a few basic rules are followed.

 

General Points |

  • A lot of calf houses are poorly designed. Older sheds especially often have too few air outlets resulting in inadequate ventilation. Some small modifications can make a big difference.
  • Calves shouldn’t share an airspace with cows. Unfortunately, a lot of calf housing is in the same shed as the calving pens. If sick cows are kept in the calving pens, this makes a bad situation worse.
  • Ideally, there should be a maximum of 40-50 calves in the same airspace.
  • Using outdoor plastic hutches can be an excellent solution on certain farms. Bear in mind that in cold weather calves may need extra feed to supply energy to keep warm.

 

Space  |

  • Calves require a minimum lying space of 1.7m2. A total floor area of 2.3m2 per calf is required if we include the feed passage. E.g. a pen for 6 calves should be roughly 12m2 (3m wide x 4m deep).
  • Calculate the size of your calf pens. Is there enough space for the number of calves you plan to put in each pen?
  • Have you enough pens to house the number of calves you expect on the ground?
  • Calves should be grouped according to age. Groups of 5-6 calves are generally preferred. It is easier to detect sick calves in small groups.
  • With automatic milk feeders calves would be in bigger groups. These should be observed frequently for any signs of illness.
  • DO NOT mix older calves back into pens with young calves, the older calves may be shedding infectious agents. Keep batches of calves together, the less mixing the better.
  • With compact calving where we might have 80% of cows calving within a 6-week window, there will be huge strain on calf housing in a short space of time.
  • Moving weaned calves to other sheds and selling bull calves early can ease some of this pressure.

 

Bedding  |

  • Straw bedding should be deep and dry. The bedding should be cleaned out between batches of calves.
  • If you kneel in the straw your knees should stay dry if the bedding is sufficient.
  • Some farms use calf slats in the feeding area, this is a huge help to hygiene.
  • Rubber mats can also be used to improve calf comfort. (Fig. 1)

 

Ventilation  |

  • Viruses and bacteria thrive in humid air. Having good ventilation without draughts will seriously reduce the risk of calf pneumonia and other diseases.
  • The air outlet area is the space provided at the apex of the roof for air to escape.
  • The air inlet area is usually at the eaves of the shed and must be at least twice the size of the outlet area. Ideally the air inlet would be at least 1.5m lower than the outlet.
  • The outlet should be at least 0.04m2 per calf.
  • A simple way to test ventilation is to crouch to calf level, if there is a smell of ammonia then the ventilation is inadequate.
  • Draughts must be avoided at all costs. Check there are no gaps under doors or holes in side sheeting near calf level. (Fig. 2) In large airy sheds down-draughts may be an issue. In this case plyboard can be used to create shelter for calves to lie under. These can be hinged up to allow a tractor in to clean the shed. (Fig. 3)

 

Sick Calves  |

  • Sick calves (scour/pneumonia) should be identified promptly and moved to an isolation pen (ideally in a separate shed).
  • Treat these sick calves as highly infectious unless proven otherwise. Feed them last. Use a designated feeder, stomach tube etc. Disinfect your boots when entering and leaving the sick calf pen.
  • If these calves are returned to the main calf shed put them back in with calves of their own age, never mix back in with younger calves.

 

Hygiene |

  • The easier it is to clean the calf house, the better. The walls should be smooth, with no cracks or crevices for dung to stick to.
  • Many farmers notice that most disease occurs in later born calves. This is due to the build-up of infectious agents over the housing period. Cleaning pens between batches of calves can help. You should never powerwash pens when calves are still in the shed.
  • When all the calves are turned out, clean and powerwash all surfaces of the calf house. Steam cleaning will improve hygiene. Disinfectant should be applied and allowed to soak in. Ideally leave the shed empty for 3-4 months. Talk to your vet about which disinfectant to use.

 

Some Tips to Keep Calves Healthy Indoors |

  • Don’t overcrowd calf pens
  • Keep groups together – avoid mixing batches
  • Dry deep bedding
  • Clean out straw bedding between batches of calves
  • No draughts – block any gaps
  • Isolate sick calves quickly

Figure 1.

This pen for 6 calves has slats at the feeding area and a rubber mat to improve calf comfort

Figure 2.

Gaps under doors will cause draughts.

Figure 3.

Plyboard shelters protect calves from down draughts.

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