When pressed to identify the “ideal” calf-housing structure, the experts agree that individual hutches most easily satisfy all of the fundamental calf-housing requirements. At the same time, however, hutches often are met with resistance on the part of caretakers who have to brave the elements to use them and are viewed as too labor-intensive by some managers.

“As we have more dairies utilizing hired labor, we cannot ignore the concerns of the people doing the work,” says Dan McFarland, extension ag engineer, Penn State University. “The needs of the calves must be balanced with the ability of the people to manage those needs.”

McFarland says the following factors are among the top caretaker desires:

  • Easy handling.
  • Easy observation.
  • Ability to isolate and restrain calves for procedures such as vaccination, dehorning, ear tagging, disease treatment, etc.
  • Easy feeding.
  • Easy cleaning.

It’s a matter of give-and-take, says Brenda Moslock Carter, veterinarian with Keseca Veterinary Clinic, Geneva, N.Y. “Part of my job is to help producers prioritize what is most important to them, while pointing out what they have to give up to get what they want.” She notes that many clients who have switched from hutches to greenhouse barns have seen an appreciable increase in pneumonia cases. “But because it usually responds to treatment and has not dramatically impacted death loss, it’s an expense they’re willing to accept.”

Regardless of what housing system is chosen, “we shouldn’t forget what hutches have taught us,” says McFarland. “We know they work well when managed well, so we need to retain their positive elements.” He says he has seen several producers who have actually put hutches inside greenhouse barns, with excellent results. And he cites another herd that is experiencing great success with a traditional greenhouse barn, largely as the result of their lowering or raising the sidewall curtains up to nine times a day.  

No matter what housing system you choose, if it meets the five fundamentals for calf housing, and you combine it with good management and disease prevention, your calves should thrive.

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

Hutch management tips

Calf hutches come with their own set of management requirements to achieve optimal results.  Penn State University extension agricultural engineer Dan McFarland offers these rules of thumb:

  • Provide at least 32 square feet (4' X 8') of pen run space and the same amount of bedded shelter space.  The 2:1 length-to-width ratio for the shelter area aids in reducing drafts. 
  • Choose opaque fiberglass or plastic, if possible. Wood harbors disease organisms, and transparent or translucent materials allow too much heat to concentrate on sunny days, acting like a “mini greenhouse.”
  • Use a design that allows for the upper half of the back of the hutch to be removed in hot weather for improved air exchange.
  • Keep feeding area outside so feces and urine do not build up in the shelter area.
  • Make the cleaning process easy —using mechanization whenever possible — to assure that bedding is changed on a regular basis.