All dairy calf housing should be clean, dry, comfortable and well-ventilated. But newly weaned calves have even more specific housing needs, according to Penn State Extension agricultural engineer Dan McFarland.
He said heifers from post-weaning to 5-6 months of age ideally should be housed in groups of 8 or less, with at least 40 square feet of resting space per animal. “A group of animals may fit in a smaller space, but it will be a challenge to keep them dry and maintain good air quality if they are over-crowded,” said McFarland.
McFarland recommends a maximum age spread of no more than 1 month in groups of just-weaned calves, and emphasized that small groups are especially important when calves are being commingled from individual pens or hutches.
Housing newly weaned calves in free stalls is usually not advised, because McFarland said they cannot be adequately bedded to keep younger calves warm. “Calves that are just weaned do not have enough rumen function to generate their own heat, and still have relatively high surface area compared to their body mass,” he advised. “They definitely need a bedded resting space to nestle in, especially in colder climates.”
While McFarland has seen transition calves raised successfully in a variety newly constructed facilities, as well as older-retrofitted barns, he advises certain additional housing requirements, regardless of the facility’s age. They include:
- Feeding accommodations – All heifers should have space to eat at the same time, with feeding space of 18 inches per head or greater. “Unlike lactating cows, heifers usually are limit-fed, so the ability for every animal to eat at the same time is critical,” said McFarland. If a feed trough is used for grain, it should be no higher than 18 inches above the standing surface with the trough bottom 6 inches below the top edge. For flat mangers, the feed table should be 2 to 4 inches above the standing surface, 36 inches wide. , and have a durable, smooth surface that is easy to clean. Some options to accomplish this are tile, high-quality epoxy sealant, or even stainless steel sheeting.
- Water availability – Water trough height should be no more than 18 inches for Holstein calves. McFarland prefers that waterers are placed away from the feed area to prevent feed spoilage. Allowing access to only one side of the waterer also helps keep surrounding bedding drier. The engineer noted that newly weaned calves may need help locating and learning to use the water source. He prefers open-face water troughs because they are easier for calves to find and use, and allow for more convenient cleaning.
- Ventilation – There are many viable options for natural or mechanical ventilation that can work well, but McFarland cautioned transition heifers need more protection from drafts than older animals. Curtained sidewalls can provide flexible options for managing various environmental conditions. Adding a properly designed positive pressure ventilation system can help maintain good air quality when the sidewalls are more closed during colder weather. In any ventilation system, he said the ultimate goal should be for the interior air quality to be similar to outdoors.
McFarland prefers slant-bar feed barriers for younger transition calves because they are easy for calves to put their heads through – although many farms find it necessary to place a horizontal bar across them mid-height because heifers try to walk through them. Self-locking stanchions are useful for restraint for treatment, but some calves can become startled initially due to the movement, noise and possible restraint causing them to fall. If headlocks are used, mount them low at first so the pivoting stanchion does not close and lock when the calf lowers her head to eat. Best to select a design that allows the bottom to open and release the calf in the event of a fall. Post-and-rail systems also can work, although they might allow more competition between animals.
If accommodations can be made to include a scale area in the housing facility, McFarland strongly advises it. “Periodically weighing animals is one of the only ways we have to monitor heifers’ progress as they are developing,” he noted.
Finally, he said while convenient, slotted floors near the feeding area are not ideal for just-weaned heifers. “The size of the openings and calves’ hooves are too similar, and could potentially lead to injuries,” he said. “And since the number hooves is relatively small for the surface area provided, they may not effectively push manure through the slats, resulting in a dirty environment, and an uncomfortable footing surface in freezing weather.”
A variety of construction plans for dairy calf and heifer facilities designed by McFarland and his colleagues can be found here.