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Advancements in calf housing

Brian Wesemann Published on 24 November 2015
Calf housing

In 1980, it felt like a leap of faith to follow the advice of the researchers who said, “Move your calves outside. They won’t freeze, and they won’t die.”

At the time, calves were typically housed in box stalls at the ends of cow barns. It was scary for producers to move their calves out of what felt like the protection of the barn and into what felt like the harsh elements of the outdoors. At the time, plywood was the primary material for building outdoor calf hutches.

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Now we look back as if those were the Dark Ages, but there were tens of thousands of operations that housed calves that way. As an industry, we didn’t know any better. Today, we understand that keeping calves in the “cozy” barn was taxing their developing immune systems, and that what was once thought of as the “harsh elements” can be made safe and comfortable for calves.

Calf housing has come a long way in the last three decades and is now capable of reducing many of the challenges associated with raising healthy, profitable replacement heifers. Among other things, we have learned to design calf housing to slow the spread of pathogens between calves, reduce the risk of respiratory disease and reduce the amount of stress calves face year-round.

Living in the solution

One of our greatest accomplishments in raising calves has been drastic improvements to ventilation. Today’s successful housing design promotes vital air exchange. Among other things, quality ventilation reduces humidity inside the calf’s living space.

We often think of humidity as a partner to hot weather. However, high humidity can be dangerous for calves during cold weather, too. In this case, the moisture in the air comes not from the weather but from the calf herself. Calves produce as much as 2 gallons of water per day when exhaling.

In the cold, this moisture condenses on the walls, on bedding and on the calf’s coat. When the calf’s coat gets wet, it stops working as insulation from the cold. A young calf could lose the ability to regulate body heat and could die from cold stress even when temperatures are above freezing.

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Invest in the best

Another factor of improved ventilation is the reduction of damage to calves’ lungs from disease or environmental toxins. Ammonia levels above 25 parts per million can irritate the respiratory system and reduce a calf’s natural protection from disease. To reduce this risk, follow these tips:

  • When purchasing outdoor hutches, look for systems that have the largest possible ventilation opening, preferably near the top of the back wall of the hutch. Ideally, the ventilation hole would be adjustable to respond to cool, hot, wet or windy weather. When temperatures are moderate to low in both indoor and outdoor calf housing, be sure that air movement through a calf’s living space is below average walking speed, which is about 3 mph.

  • Monitor the health of your calves’ respiratory systems. Choose to invest only in the heifers likely to grow into productive cows. It might feel like a waste to send a calf with good genetics to the feedlot. But if you have to treat a cow every summer for an upper respiratory infection because her lungs were damaged as a calf, you could be wasting money for years.

Clean and comfortable

The goal of designing calf housing should always be to keep calves comfortable and healthy. Good housing can also make life better for employees as well as calves. Choose material that can be easily cleaned, is lightweight and long-lasting. The following tips can help you select the best calf housing materials:

  • Choose a nonporous, lightweight material such as thermo-formed polyethylene plastic, which can be easily moved, cleaned and sanitized between calves. This limits your labor costs and reduces stress for your animals and people.

  • Opaque material keeps calves cooler and more comfortable. The inside of a translucent hutch penetrated by the sun will be on average 15ºF (8ºC) warmer than the inside of an opaque hutch with the same ventilation. Even in winter months when temperatures are low, ultraviolet rays can still be damaging. Opaque housing material is better protected from UV rays, which means the material will last longer and suffer less damage from the sun.

Calf care is one facet of the dairy industry light years ahead of where it was in 1980. As an industry, we have learned to design calf housing to reduce the spread of contagions, reduce respiratory disease risk and increase calf comfort. Quality housing also can improve labor efficiency. By improving the way we meet this basic need, we have opened the door for maximum performance as our dairy heifers grow to join our milking herds.  PD

For more information, contact Brian Wesemann, director of sales of Calf-Tel Hampel Animal Care at (800) 558-8558.

References omitted due to space but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

PHOTO: Calf housing has come a long way in the last three decades and is now capable of reducing many of the challenges associated with raising healthy, profitable dairy replacements. Photo courtesy of Calf-Tel Hampel Animal Care.

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