"I could keep my calf hutches, or I could keep my wife."
It’s a sentiment that Ken Nordlund has heard more than once from the dairy producers he advises. Now, there is a workable solution.
Nordlund, who is a clinical professor in the Food Animal Production Medicine group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says the brutal winters of the Upper Midwest have motivated some producers to seek alternative housing facilities for their calves. “They want an option that offers the environmental and health benefits of hutch housing, with easier maintenance and better working conditions for those who care for the calves,” says Nordlund.
The result is a variety of configurations of “mini” calf barns, constructed of steel over a wood frame and often arranged in clusters of four to six units, usually sized to house 20 or more calves.
A worker-friendly alternative
Dan Smits, partner at Double S Dairy in Markesan, Wis., made the switch from hutches on his 1,200-cow operation three years ago. “I’ve got nothing against hutches in terms of successfully raising calves,” says Smits. “They served us well for years, and many people do a great job with them. We just wanted something that was less labor-intensive and easier to manage in the winter.”
Smits and his brother, Steve, transitioned from 160 hutches to four, single-row, 20-by-160-foot calf barns that house 45 calves each in individual pens. A deep gravel base saved on construction cost and reduces bedding needs, and a drive-through feed alley makes it easy to fill pails with pasteurized waste milk transported via a farm utility vehicle.
Curtained sidewalls open to the south, a feature that was a priority for Smits. The north sides also have 5-foot curtains that extend to 2-foot base walls. Both the east and west ends open with standard, 8-foot-wide garage doors, but Smits says they intentionally put automatic door openers only on the west end. “This requires us to back out after we fill pails, so we can observe the health and behavior of every calf at feeding time,” says Smits.
Quality time with the calves
Moving away from hutches is not the only reason producers are adopting the new style of buildings. Evansville, Wis., dairyman Mike Larson says he and his family partners at Larson Acres, Inc. opted for the small buildings when they expanded to 2,400 cows in 2010. They previously raised their calves in a large, 120-stall barn that still is in use.