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 wind.

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.

Image of isolated calves


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 to calves.


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.

Adequate space

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.

For more information:
Toll Free: 1-877-424-1300
Author: Harold K. House - Engineer, Dairy and Beef Housing and Equipment/OMAFRA
Creation Date: 04 May 2011
Last Reviewed: 04 May 2011