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Calf hutch walk-throughs: What you need to look for

Anne Proctor for Progressive Dairyman Published on 31 March 2016
Calves at their hutches

Editor’s note: This article is part two in a two-part series on what to look for during a calf pen walk-through. Part one: Indoor calf pen walk-throughs: What you need to look for.

In the previous article, the focus was on looking at calves with some simple ways to identify a potential problem.

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This time, we’ll talk about specific things to look at when walking calves in hutches. Well-managed hutches can be a great environment for calves. Looking at hutches can be similar to looking at calves. Focus on the needs of the calf and manage the hutch to meet its needs.

Shelter is the calf’s most basic need. The hutch provides shelter from weather – rain, snow, wind, sun. Look at each hutch as you walk by and ask yourself, “Does this hutch provide adequate shelter for this calf? Will it be protected in all types of weather?”

Positioning

Are hutches positioned to take advantage of the local environment? In cold-weather climates, positioning hutches so the doors face to the south allows the calf to lie inside where it is protected from the wind but still has the benefit of warmth from the sun.

In the summer, positioning the doors to the north will provide shade and help keep the calf cool. While it is not feasible to turn hutches once they are in use, many producers will start facing the hutches in the desired direction as the seasons change.

As summer approaches, new calves will go into hutches that face north, while calves in south-facing hutches will be weaned and move out of the hutches before the weather gets hot.

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Air flow

Be aware of the prevailing wind and position hutches so that the calf can get out of the wind. Consider also how the wind goes around other buildings and the impact it has on air flow around the hutches. The wind across one end of the hutches may be very different than the other end due to the positioning of other buildings relative to the direction of the wind.

It may be necessary to put up windbreaks to block the winter wind for specific rows of hutches and create a better environment for the individual calf. Have you noticed that calves in a specific row never perform as well as the rest of the calves?

They may be in a very different environment than other calves on the same farm. When you walk hutches, be aware of the wind and point out cold areas so they can be addressed.

We’re always looking for drafts in indoor facilities, but have you checked for drafts in your hutches? Damage occurs over time as hutches are moved or bumped into with equipment.

After a few years, hutches can have cracks and holes. These openings in the walls provide a route for air to flow through the hutch. When walls are intact, you can control air flow through the hutch by using the vents, but if there is a hole in the wall, now you have a pathway for air to flow uncontrolled across the calf.

During cold weather, these “ventilated hutches” can result in calves being in a draft. Look at your hutches and mend those holes so your outdoor calves are not in a draft.

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While we don’t want uncontrolled air flow during the cold winter months because of drafts, we do want air flow through the hutches during warm weather. Opening vents allows air through, but sometimes it is necessary to increase air flow even more. Raising the backs of hutches using cement blocks or wooden fenceposts allows air to flow across the calf and keep hutches from getting too hot in the summer.

Don’t make your calves choose between lying in the sun or lying in a hot, stuffy hutch. Turn the doors to the north and raise the backs so they can be comfortable on those hot summer days.

Bedding

Hutches provide shelter from the wind and rain and also provide a dry place for a calf to rest. Wet calves and calves with matted hair use more energy to stay warm. Energy is an expensive part of the diet, and it is a costly way to keep calves warm. Bedding provides a layer of insulation between the calf and the ground and keeps the calf dry.

In cold and wet climates, a deep straw bed insulates the calf both from the ground and from the cold air. In more arid environments and warm temperatures, we don’t need the insulating value, but do want bedding that can be cleaned up between calves and provides drainage for urine to keep the calf dry. A layer of sawdust or sand can provide a barrier yet still be easy to remove.

Sanitation

One of the benefits of raising calves in hutches is being able to minimize the spread of disease between animals. We talk about the importance of sanitation when calves are indoors or in groups, and the same principles apply to calf hutches. The newborn calf has little immunity to pathogens in the environment, and a hutch enables us to isolate her in a clean environment.

Hutches should be cleaned and sanitized between calves and placed on a fresh piece of ground before adding new bedding. While washing hutches is not usually a favorite job on the dairy, it can be the difference between a healthy calf and a problem calf.

Feed and water

Finally, hutches make it easy to monitor feed and water intake and manure of individual calves. As you walk calves, look at how much starter is available and compare the amount to the age and expected intake of the calf.

Offer slightly more starter than the calf will eat and check to see that it is fresh. Dig to the bottom of the bucket to make sure all of the feed is clean and dry. Sometimes feed gets wet from a rainstorm, humid weather or just an employee with poor aim filling water buckets.

Check water buckets to make sure water is fresh and available. Look for fresh manure to help assess the health of the calf, as discussed in the last article.

Hutches can provide a great environment, but even in this system, individual calves can have very different experiences depending on which hutch they are in. As you walk calves in hutches, look at each hutch and assess how well it meets the needs of the calf.

Manage how hutches are positioned in relation to sun, wind and season. Maintain hutches so they are clean when the new calf arrives and in good repair to prevent exposure to wind and weather. Take advantage of the individual housing to monitor feed and water intake and manure consistency. Keep calves clean, dry and comfortable.

Evaluate each hutch to ensure that it provides an environment that allows its occupant to meet its genetic potential.  PD

PHOTO: Calves in their walk-through hutches. Photo by Mike Dixon.

Anne Proctor
  • Anne Proctor

  • Dairy Technical Specialist
  • Agri-Nutrition Consulting
  • Email Anne Proctor

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