Tips to Improve Calf Housing
Calves need to be isolated from larger animals and protected
from extreme weather.
Calf housing is more important to your bottom line than you might
think. Calves, like other babies, are at a delicate stage of their
life cycle. They cannot withstand disease, environment or other
health challenges until their immune systems fully develop.
Do you know what housing criteria will best protect calves from
disease and the elements? For one, calves should be isolated from
older animals to minimize disease exposure. They should also be
protected from weather extremes like cold, heat, snow, rain and
The three most important factors to keep in mind are to keep calves
clean and dry, and provide fresh air without causing drafts. However,
there are many other factors to consider. If you follow best practices
for housing your calves, you can minimize disease, protect your
calves from the elements, and ensure they get off to a healthy start.
The following is a top 10 list, not necessarily in order of importance:
Calves respond best when kept away from the dairy herd, such as
in a separate nursery facility. This minimizes disease exposure.
Calves also respond well when isolated from each other until weaning.
Preventing nose-to nose contact and navel sucking will limit infection
and disease spread. For instance, penning dividers prevent contact
between calves and tethers prevent them from touching each other.
Feeding calves until they are satisfied is important in group housing.
When group-housed and fed to satisfaction, they will not have a
need to suck each other, which reduces navel infection risk.
Also, weaned calves should not be housed with unweaned youngsters
for long periods of time. A calf's manure substantially changes
when on solid feed. It produces more moisture and ammonia. Providing
enough ventilation for older calves without over-ventilating younger
ones can be difficult when they are housed together.
Calves can usually handle heat and cold if fed properly, but not
temperature extremes. They need to be protected from rain and snow,
strong winds and dampness, especially drafts, which can be stressful
What environment is most comfortable for the calf and the operator?
Which is most practical to maintain? The answer: a cold environment,
within reason. If the environment is so cold calf performance suffers
and you can't manage calves properly, then you should consider other
alternatives or modifications.
Calves need fresh air, but they can't handle drafts. A draft occurs
when a calf experiences discomfort based on the speed, temperature
and humidity of air moving around it. Drafts stress calves and make
them susceptible to disease, such as pneumonia.
Calves up to two months of age need at least 25 to 32 square feet
to move around. Pens measuring four feet by six feet to four feet
by eight feet, work best. If your calves are group housed, make
sure there is at least 32 square feet of bedded area per calf.
Does your calf housing system provide for convenient individual
calf observation? Early disease detection means early treatment
and early cure. Having ample room to properly observe the whole
calf for disease and illness is important.
Calves need to be kept clean and dry. This starts with a well-drained
base, such as gravel covered with sand or a concrete floor with
a slight slope to a gutter. The type of base you choose is even
more critical when pens are pressure-washed.
What kind of bedding is best? How much should be used? How convenient
is it to apply? These are important questions. A producer once said,
"Bedding is the cheapest drug you can buy."
Bedding, especially long straw, can keep your calves warm when
it is cold. There should be enough to let the calf nest. Long straw
does not blow around as much as sawdust or shavings. However, sawdust
and shavings are more absorbent and provide better fly control.
Proper nutrition plays a key role in calf performance and health.
Calves should be fed according to changing weather conditions. Ask
yourself these questions: How easy is it to feed your calves? How
far must the feed be transferred? Is it necessary to have a feed
room in the calf facility?
Cleaning and sanitation
A calf facility that is oversized so that a portion can be cleaned,
sanitized and left empty for 10 to 14 days, or more, is best. Maintaining
a clean calf bed, and consequently clean calves, is paramount.
This article first appeared in the Ruminations column of The Milk
Producer Magazine, December 2010.