With dairy heifers fetching upward of $1,600 apiece these days, New York veterinarian Brenda Moslock Carter says it’s getting easier all the time to convince her clients to take good care of their calves.

“Every replacement is so critical these days,” says Carter. “We’re being asked for more help with calf problems, and producers are a lot less willing to accept calf losses today.”

Housing is a fundamental calf-health component on which Carter and her four fellow practitioners at Keseca Veterinary Clinic, Geneva, N.Y., often end up consulting. To keep calves healthy and thriving, she says there’s no substitute for well-designed calf facilities, coupled with careful management.

Housing expert Dan McFarland agrees. McFarland, an extension agricultural engineer at Penn State University, has worked extensively with facility design and construction for dairy cattle of all ages and in various climates. New or old, frigid climate or arid, big dairy or small, McFarland says you must meet some basic housing requirements for calves to have a chance to thrive.

Keep these five fundamental rules in mind when setting up calf housing.

1. A dry, comfortable resting area.

Calves need a place to lie down in a dry, draft-free environment. McFarland says individual hutches are probably the easiest means of providing such a setting, because they allow calves to make the choice between staying outside or entering the hutch to escape drafts.

In cold climates, provide a deep bed with good-quality, long-stemmed straw for hutches because calves can burrow down in it and preserve body heat, says Carter. Greenhouse-style calf barns can be well bedded with either straw, wood chips or shredded paper.

And remember that comfortable does not necessarily mean warm, says Jim Quigley, director of calf research at American Protein Corporation in Ames, Iowa. “Calves can grow quite well in cold- housing systems, including unheated barns, pens and hutches,” he states. However, severe cold does require special management, including: additional bedding, more frequent watering and extra feed to provide bonus energy for body heat production. 

Finally, comfort in hot climates requires shade. Quigley notes that keeping cool — via evaporative cooling and panting — can be just as taxing on a calf as keeping warm. Adequate shade for each animal, along with plenty of fresh drinking water, will limit the amount of energy calves have to expend for temperature regulation.

2. Good ventilation.

Fresh air is the next requirement in the formula for healthy, profitable calves. “Regardless of the structure, we need regular air circulation and exchange,” says McFarland, noting that there is a distinct difference between the two. Simple air circulation isn’t enough. A circulation fan in a calf barn can continuously move stale air, but you also need to continuously bring in fresh air from the outside to exchange with the stale air inside.

3. Access to feed and water.

Delivery of milk, grain and water should be easy and convenient for both calves and caretakers. Fixed feeding boxes should be avoided because maintenance is typically neglected. Use barriers to the feed that allow the calf easy access, yet prevent contact from adjacent calves and also prevent entrapment if the calf slips and falls.

4. Confident footing.

“When we’re raising dairy calves — especially heifers — we have to remember that we’re raising future adult animals,” reminds McFarland. A stable, skid-free surface is essential for good foot and leg development and for limiting stress on the calf. This is one of the reasons why dairy replacement calves don’t do as well when raised in facilities designed for veal calves.

5. Don’t overcrowd.

Overcrowding can be a major source of calf disease problems. Whether the problem is calves being doubled-up in hutches, too wide an age range in a calf barn, or newborns housed in makeshift “overflow” facilities, Carter says sick calves won’t be far behind when you overcrowd your facilities.

“When this happens, we have to find the source of the problem, then help the dairy work through it,” she says. “Often, it’s a bottleneck somewhere else in the system, like an uneven breeding schedule, or a bottleneck in heifer-rearing facilities up the line.” 

In other cases, expanding dairies simply have not kept up with their calf-housing needs. Or, a labor shortage leads to a backlog in getting calves weaned and moved to the next level in a timely fashion. Overcrowding can even be the happy result of an improved breeding program for the herd or even the simple fact that more calves are surviving because of management or housing changes.

McFarland uses the rule-of- thumb that a dairy should have calf-housing space for 20 percent to 30 percent of the milking herd size if only heifers are raised. If all calves are raised, you need calf-housing space that equals 50 percent of the milking herd size. On top of this, he strongly recommends that calf facilities be designed to operate at only 75 percent capacity, so that 25 percent of the space is vacant, on a rotational basis, at all times.

Putting it all together
“Regardless of the structure selected, the key is sticking to the fundamental requirements and taking the management steps to make sure those requirements are met,” says McFarland.  (To learn more about disease prevention in calves and calf management, see the special package of articles in the September 2002 issue of Dairy Herd Management.)

If his nearly two decades of experience have taught him anything, McFarland says, it’s that there is more than one method of doing just about anything successfully.

“When I was a new graduate, I thought there was a single way to do something, and that was the right way,” says McFarland. “Now that I’m a little more grounded in reality, I’ve learned that farms and producers are the greatest laboratory possible. The good ones will take what they’ve learned and improve upon it, and the ingenuity I’ve seen in calf housing is remarkable. There are almost as many different ways to raise calves as there are dairies, and many of them work quite well.”

Carter agrees, noting that the most beautifully designed, modern facilities still can turn out sick calves if not properly managed. Conversely, she’s seen less-than-optimal facilities that worked just fine because of the extra dedication and attention to detail on the part of caretakers. 

“Housing facilities are certainly important,” says Carter, “but the mindset of management also has to be positive, focusing on both the big picture and the small-but-important details. We work so hard on reproduction and getting cows pregnant, but the most successful dairies pay just as much attention to managing those calves once they hit the ground.”   

Maureen Hanson is a freelance writer from LaPorte City, Iowa. This article has been excerpted from our sister publication, Bovine Veterinarian.

Calf housing resources

  • “Calf Notes” by Jim Quigley,  www.calfnotes.com
  • “Calves, Heifers and Dairy Profitability,” NRAES-74. To order, contact Midwest Plan Service, (800) 562-3618, or order online at www.mwpshq.org  Cost is $30.
  • “Greenhouse Barns for Dairy Housing,” AED-40, free PDF download from www.mwpshq.org
  • “Penn State Free-stall & Heifer Housing Plans,” NRAES-85. To order, contact Midwest Plan Service, (800) 562-3618, or order online at www.mwpshq.org Cost is $15.