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Bedding and housing are important to your calves

Mark Hill, Gale Bateman and Jim Quigley Published on 19 September 2012

This practical calf management article features tips for keeping calves comfortable throughout all seasons of the year. to jump to the article below.

Authors Mark Hill, Gale Bateman and Jim Quigley urged producers to focus on bedding and facilities for keeping calves healthy. When browsing this article, David Lane took the opportunity to let us and fellow readers know about a Pennsylvania family who was going a step above to provide an individual calf with a healthy start.



David said, "This is the Fan Page for Amos a premature calf born on Martin Farm in Canonsburg PA. His story has captured to heart on many both farmers and non farmers." ( or scroll down to see his comment.)

Check out the Facebook page or the accompanying blog by Holly Martin to learn more about Amos's story.


calf management table

What the research says
Summer heat – The summer of 2012 was among the hottest on record in much of the U.S., and calves have suffered in the heat.

Daytime highs consistently over 80°F (maybe even lower than 80°F) cause heat stress in calves and will reduce growth. Heat abatement strategies during hot weather include water, fans, shade and elevation of hutches.


Research has clearly shown that heat stress reduces growth of calves. ( click here to see the April 6, 2012 issue of Progressive Dairyman ). There are several steps you can take to ensure your calves are as comfortable as possible in the heat.

First, provide fresh clean water daily to calves – even those less than a week old. Studies have shown that water intake increases dramatically with increasing ambient temperature above the thermoneutral zone. Fresh, clean water helps the calf maintain its body temperature and will ensure continued starter intake.

Second, continuous air movement, either by use of fans or natural ventilation, is essential. Increase ventilation of hutches by elevating the rear of the hutch approximately six inches using concrete blocks.

This tremendously improves air quality.Use fans to cool calves in nurseries during the daytime. This practice improved growth of calves in our studies by 11 lbs over eight weeks in a summer trial.

Temperature variations in fall and spring
In research conducted at the Nurture Research Center in Ohio from May to September, calves bedded with straw were six to nine lbs heavier at 8 weeks old than calves bedded with sand. This was true for calves in both hutches and naturally ventilated nurseries.

A reason could be that many nights were cool and straw provided more insulation than other forms of bedding. Additionally, calves bedded on straw are exposed to fewer airborne bacteria compared to calves bedded on sand.


While straw attracts more flies than many types of bedding, straw supports the most calf growth and offers the best air quality. Many times bedding can become wet in individual pens within nurseries, group pens in nurseries and in hutches outside.

Wet bedding does not insulate the calf from the cold and contributes to a wet hair coat which, in turn, allows increased heat loss from the calf. This needs careful management and is easily overlooked on some farms. Research has shown that when calves can choose where to lie, they prefer dry bedding.

Temperature variations from warm to cool and damp weather frequently increase respiratory sickness. Dry bedding that provides insulation is very important. This is where straw bedding is king. Provide enough bedding to allow the calf to stay warm when it’s cold and to get out of drafts. Calves in hutches can get in the backs of those hutches to stay out of drafts.

Likewise, calves in nurseries need a draft-free environment. A pen in the front of the hutch can become muddy and soiled in wet weather. Mud and manure can then be tracked into the hutch by the calf. Use a small amount of straw or crop stubble bedding in front of the hutch to reduce water and mud being carried inside the hutch.

Finally, stagnant and damp air is a problem during spring and fall, so be sure to keep hutch vents open. Research has found poor-quality air in several hutch types. The dampness of the fall and spring weather just compounds air quality issues in hutches.

Cold stress
Winter, late fall and early spring seasons require deep straw bedding in cold climates. Research in Wisconsin and Ohio demonstrated that deep straw bedding reduced the incidence of respiratory sickness, scours and improved growth of calves during cold weather.

Both studies reported fewer bacteria in the air with deep straw bedding vs. more shallow bedding types. In extremely cold weather, calf jackets for the first 2 to 3 weeks old are an option for keeping calves warm.

What’s more important – feeding rate or bedding? When conventional or high-protein milk replacers were fed at four to eight quarts per day, the benefits from dry straw vs. hardwood shavings outweighed feeding rate of milk replacer. So quality of bedding management should be the first priority and only then should level of milk or milk replacer be considered.

Think of it this way: Would you rather hike five miles in a snowstorm wearing a good pair of boots and a good pair of insulated coveralls or wearing a good pair of boots in your birthday suit with a dozen energy bars to eat on your hike?

Level of milk or milk replacer fed is important in hot and cold weather. Six quarts of milk or milk replacer is a good amount to feed for the first three weeks of a calf’s life, especially during the summer (hottest) and winter (coldest), when heat and cold increases the maintenance energy requirement.

Optimum milk replacer formulas should contain 24 percent CP or more and less than 20 percent fat. Feeding more fat has negative effects on bodyweight gain (less muscle and frame growth) in late pre-weaning and post-weaning periods.

If feeding a 20 percent CP milk replacer, six quarts per day should only be fed for the first three weeks of life (reduce to four to five quarts per day after 3 weeks old until weaning) so not to reduce starter intake and post-weaning growth.

Manage drafts in nurseries
Nurseries with curtain sides and managed as cold barns have been shown to support more calf weight gain than poly hutches when ventilated properly.

However, a challenge in winter management of nurseries is adequate ventilation without draft. Wind from the prevailing direction passes over the curtain and drops straight down. If pens are next to the curtain, the calf may receive a cold draft.

Pens might need to be moved away from the curtain by three to five feet or more to avoid drafts. Straw bales placed in pens for calves to lie next to provide vertical insulation and windbreaks. Plus, they can be broken up and used as bedding on subsequent days.

Calves lay down a lot and stand a little and this emphasizes the importance of bedding. Several research trials have determined that calves lay more than 70 percent of the time. In our research unit, calves lie about four hours between 6 a.m. and noon, four hours between noon and 6 p.m. and 10½ to 11 hours between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.

This is true when different levels of milk replacer are fed, including free-choice feeding. Total lying time over the 24-hour day only decreases by about 30 minutes between the first and eighth weeks of life. Calves only stand up about six times per day during the first week of life, but they get more active as they get older. Calves spend most of their time standing to drink, eat or play with their feed.

Items to monitor
1. Moisture content of bedding – Moisture exceeding 20 percent is too high. Kneel with all your weight on your knees in the calf bedding. Moisture on your pants indicates the bedding is too wet.

2. Panting by calves – This a sign of heat stress. Fans reduce panting. Individual calves that have extreme panting during hot weather should be moved to shade, under fans and have their necks and back wet with cool water.

Cool concrete floors under shade help to remove heat from calves quickly. If calves in this condition are caught soon enough, these measures will return the calves back toward normal conditions within two to three hours and the calf can be returned to their normal place on the farm.

3. Straw depth during cold weather - Monitor depth of straw and provide dry straw deep enough for calves to nest in where their hooves are covered when standing in lying areas. Bed often with smaller amounts of straw vs. less frequently with larger amounts of straw to avoid compaction and better ensure dry bedding. PD

Hill, Bateman and Quigley are from the Nurture Research Center of Provimi North America, Inc.

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


Mark Hill
Ruminant Nutrition and Research
Provimi North America


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