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How much are wood hutches costing you and your calves?

Brandon Sowder for Progressive Dairyman Published on 29 December 2017
Plastic calf housing

While wooden hutches – consisting of a base, flooring and hutch system – are relatively inexpensive to build, they may not be the cheapest calf housing option available on the market today.

In fact, the lifetime maintenance and labor likely costs more than many producers realize.

Maintenance needs

Wood is a durable product, but as it gets wet – either from rain or manure – it can become vulnerable and prone to damage. Frequent repair and maintenance can end up costing producers more in the long run.

When calculating calf housing maintenance costs, it’s important to look at the lifetime product cost. This includes costs for repair supplies such as wood and nails, and labor for maintenance. If a farmer spends $10 for supplies and $10 for one hour of maintenance labor per hutch per year, this adds up to $200 over the 10-year lifespan of a wooden hutch system.

This might not seem like a lot, but with this example, a calf raiser with 5,000 calves could spend $1 million on maintenance costs for their hutches every 10 years. This is just one example, as supply and labor costs will vary from farm to farm, so it’s important for each farmer to look closely at their individual maintenance costs.

Plastic hutches are more durable than wood, require very little maintenance and are proven to last three times as long as wooden hutches. Plastic hutches seldom require maintenance, and therefore require significantly less labor and materials for upkeep – potentially costing a quarter of what is invested for wood hutch maintenance.

Labor efficiency

One of the most labor-intensive and time-consuming tasks on a dairy farm is turning calves – moving the weaned calves out, cleaning, sanitizing, rotating hutches and bringing in a new group of calves. Plastic hutches can cut this time in half.

Plastic hutches are durable and easy to clean and sanitize with a power washer. Cleaning wood hutches often involves more hand scrubbing as moisture and manure can be absorbed into the wood and is difficult to remove. Power washing can also cause the wood to break or splinter, increasing maintenance needs.

Wood hutches also require a few days to fully dry. Some farmers end up skipping the cleaning process because more calves are coming in and they need to turn the hutches quickly. Plastic hutches dry quickly, reducing downtime between turns.

Plastic systems also make managing and handling calves more efficient. Traditional wood hutch systems, consisting of three hutches connected together, only allow access to calves through the top or by lifting up the entire system from the bottom. That makes it challenging to move or access individual calves.

For example, removing a sick calf for treatment could require multiple employees to lift the wood hutch system and keep the other two calves in place while moving the sick calf. Plastic systems have doors on each hutch for easy calf access, reducing time and the number of employees needed to manage calves.

Putting the calf first

Cost is a significant factor when selecting the best calf housing for your farm. But it’s not just about the dollar figures – it’s about doing what’s right for your calves. Dairy farmers continue to invest in better genetics through technologies such as genomics and IVF.

It’s essential to provide a high-quality environment to develop those genetics into the best animal possible to get a good return on your investment.

Plastic hutches offer many advantages to support calf health and development. Some newer plastic hutches have sliding roof panels and adjustable rear ventilation, allowing for improved airflow, protection from rain or snow, and shade to combat the extreme heat many Western states experience.

Plastic hutches are also easier to clean, potentially reducing the risk of health issues and death loss. Wood is organic and porous, allowing moisture and bacteria to be absorbed into the wood and making it harder to clean and sanitize between each calf. This can negatively impact calf health.

Easy transition

Transitioning to plastic hutches can seem like a daunting process. However, producers don’t need to start from scratch or replace them all at once. With the variety of plastic hutch styles available, farms should easily be able to find one to fit their needs.

For example, elevated plastic hutch systems are designed to fit on existing wood bases, giving producers all the benefits of plastic hutches without major disruption to their current housing system.

Producers don’t have to make a complete switch from wood to plastic all at once. They can ease in with a gradual investment. They should start by replacing hutch system pieces that require more frequent repair. In most cases, this is the flooring. Wood flooring can easily splinter and break from age and pressure washing.

Plastic flooring is more durable and requires little maintenance. Next, producers should develop a plan to transition to plastic hutches – either all at once or a few at a time.

Raising healthy, well-grown calves in a cost-efficient system is the goal for any calf raiser, regardless of farm size. Plastic housing systems can help them achieve this goal.  end mark

PHOTO: Plastic calf housing can play a large role in helping improve overall calf health and development. Photo provided by Brandon Sowder.

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