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6 things to consider when turning a dairy barn into a calf barn

Ann Hoskins for Progressive Dairyman Published on 31 March 2017

Old dairy barns can look pretty attractive for baby calves. They are “warmer” than hutches and protect the calves as well as the caretakers from the elements. While this might be true, take the time to work through the answers to a few questions before you renovate to ensure the barn will provide a good environment for your calves.

Important considerations include calf flow, ventilation, sanitation, ease of feeding and the overall health benefits and risks.



Calf flow

When looking at an old facility, the age of the animals you will put in the barn and the duration of time they’ll stay there are the first things to consider. Do you have enough square footage and air space to keep that number of calves in the barn? Consider how the calf barn fits the flow of the rest of the dairy.

Will you have times when animals need to stay in this barn longer, and do you have enough space for that? Can you easily rotate animals through the system with adequate time for pen sanitation and rest?

Start by looking at the average monthly calvings for the past year and how often the monthly calvings vary from the average. Make sure the building offers enough flexibility that you won’t drastically overcrowd during the “big months.”

Space requirements

Calves require a minimum of 28 square feet per animal in the first 60 days. That number can increase with insufficient drainage. Today’s higher-milk diets cause calves to excrete more fluids. If they are on concrete with no slope, either the bedding will soak up most of the fluid, or a lot of leachate will have to go somewhere.

More fluid means more ammonia accumulation in the bedding and, in turn, more respiratory challenges.


Consider a slope to your pens so leachate can drain into a removal system. If the barn cleaner is functional, it can be a good way to remove soiled materials and wet bedding. When sloping is not an option, you may cut grooves in the concrete to move fluid.

The barn’s natural structure can make it a challenge to get 28 square feet per calf. If the structure dictates smaller pens, it may reduce the overall capacity of the barn. You will likely need to clean pens throughout the housing phase to reduce ammonia at the calf level.

Stocking density in old dairy barns is typically the biggest challenge. It is a combination of resting space and air space that makes the facility work well.

The Dairyland Initiative recommends a minimum of 600 to 1,000 cubic feet of air space or four air exchanges per hour in barns during winter, 40 or more air exchanges per hour in the summer and 15 to 20 air exchanges per hour during transitional periods like fall and spring.

When air space is limited, it reduces the number of animals you can house or requires increased ventilation without drafting calves. Work with someone trained in air specifications before any construction takes place. Having these discussions early will potentially save you a lot of time and expense.


I have worked with facilities that installed positive-pressure tubes to move air though old dairy barns. This often works well but can have some challenges. We try to make use of windows or old exhaust fan holes to avoid cutting through outside walls.


It’s hard to install fans or tubes in barns with low ceilings so they’re not in the way of a skid loader and are far enough from the calves that they can’t chew on the tubes.

An old dairy barn probably had some type of mechanical ventilation system for the cows. You may be able to use portions of this system to save time and efforts. Again, discuss all of these possibilities with someone trained in air specifications to design the best system for your facilities and animals.

Keep in mind, ventilation is a year-round priority. In the summer, doors and windows may need to be open or supplemental systems, such as additional fans, may be needed. Older dairy barns tend to be more humid during the spring and fall. Keeping that air dry will help reduce incidence of respiratory challenges.


A comprehensive sanitation program is key to successfully raising calves in any facility. Talk to your calf support team to develop a sanitation strategy for your barn. Keeping things clean is number one.

Unless you have an all-in-all-out system, you do not want to pressure wash or aerosolize water in your calf barn. You will need to either remove sidewalls in pens to wash and sanitize or have a system to clean in place. Foamers are a good option for cleaning calf barns, as they use disinfectants and sanitizers to completely clean surfaces and help to prevent disease transfer.


Whether you will house baby calves, transition calves or older heifers, you need to think about how you will feed and water these animals. This may be one of the biggest mistakes I see in any renovation project.

For babies, make sure pails are at the right height for comfortable eating. Calves must easily reach the bottom of the pails at any age, which means you may have to adjust pail heights as they grow.

Make sure transition calves and older heifers can easily reach through the bunk to access feed. Design the feeding space so you can easily push up feed and keep it fresh.

Watch for signs of feed flicking or feed close to the bunk that’s not being consumed. Both indicate a problem with the sizing of the bunk.


Especially with baby calves, make sure the barn can provide enough hot water. Oftentimes, an old water heater cannot keep up with the demands of the feeding and cleaning processes. Water amounts can vary based on whether you feed milk replacer or pasteurized whole milk.

The type of pasteurizer affects this as well. Water quality is also a concern. If you have not used the barn in a while, check the water quality (including bacteria levels, hardness and other mineral levels) and make the necessary adjustments.

For older animals, water pressure and volume become the biggest demands. Waterers should be placed in convenient spots and sized to fit the animals. We often design waterers to be “skid loader-proof” and, in turn, we also make them calf-proof. This can deter water intakes when calves are first introduced to the pens, leading to health challenges.

When looking at your old barn, start with a checklist of your needs and recognize that an old facility may not be able to functionally fill those needs. In that case, the best solution is to walk away and find an alternative facility.

If the old facility can handle your needs, start working with industry representatives that can advise you in making the necessary updates. The best facility is the one that allows your team to comfortably and adequately care for the next generation of your dairy herd.  end mark

Ann Hoskins
  • Ann Hoskins

  • Calf Products Coordinator
  • Vita Plus Corp.
  • Email Ann Hoskins