Cold-weather heifer housing

Dairy Calf and Heifer Association Published on 18 November 2011

The quality of shelter given to heifers during cold weather is vital to their growth rate, performance and overall health.

Less-than-optimal housing conditions expose heifer resting areas to precipitation and wind. These areas quickly become damp and muddy, causing wet, dirty hair coats. Add inadequate resting and feeding space to the equation and you create an environment where heifers are stressed and do not thrive, much less meet growth expectations.

Get a head start on providing good air quality and clean, dry, draft-free housing this season. Assess the amount of resting space and feeding space given to heifers in all stages of production. It can mean the difference between mediocre performance and outstanding achievement this winter.

Shelter from wet, windy conditions
Cold-weather heifer housing should provide optimum protection from wind and precipitation. This is especially important for animals less than 6 months old.

This age group is not producing as much heat as their older counterparts, says Dan McFarland, agricultural engineer with Penn State Cooperative Extension. As a result, they need more draft protection in cold weather so that they don’t get chilled. This helps to reduce stress and helps heifers retain the heat that they produce.

DCHA’s Gold Standards I, a set of benchmarks for Holstein heifers less than 6 months old, encourage the use of draft-free, dry housing for heifers within this age group. The housing environment should also be clean and provide good air quality.

“Providing a dry, comfortable resting area is very important,” McFarland says. “We want to promote cleanliness.”

Clean resting areas help heifers maintain a dry, erect hair coat, which is better able to trap air between the hair fibers. Trapped air helps heifers to retain more heat, especially in cold weather.

Clean, dry, draft-free winter housing also is important for older heifers and is addressed in DCHA’s Gold Standards II. The guidelines state that heifers 6 months old to freshening should be given shelter from wind and precipitation when wind chill temperatures are 20ºF or lower.

“When the wind chill itself gets below 20ºF, we certainly want to be sure that (heifers 12 months old to freshening) have a windbreak,” explains Sam Leadley, calf and heifer management consultant with Attica Veterinary Associates in Attica, New York. “Smaller animals (6 to 12 months old) certainly benefit from overhead shelter.”

The benefits of good air quality during the colder months of the year also extend to the 6-month-old-and- older age group.

Resting space guidelines
DCHA’s Gold Standards also stress the importance of providing comfortable, spacious resting areas.

Bedded pens that supply a generous amount of bedding allow animals to “nest” and retain body heat. Choose bedding that conforms to the shape of the heifer when she lies down, McFarland says. This minimizes injury and feet and leg problems.

“We also encourage complete bedding removal and replacement rather than just adding bedding on top of bedding,” McFarland says. “I’ve had a number of producers tell me that once they used this practice, the heifers seemed to grow better and remain healthier.”

The Gold Standards I and II also recommend that you give animals adequate space to lie down comfortably. A minimum of 34 square feet of resting space per animal is recommended for Holstein calves 61 to 120 days old and at least 40 square feet is advised for heifers 121 to 180 days old.

Target resting space guidelines for older heifers are as follows:

• 6 to 12 months old: 45 square feet per head or one freestall per animal.

• 12 to 18 months old: 50 square feet per head or one freestall per animal.

• 18 months old to 2 to 4 weeks pre-freshening: 60 square feet per head or one freestall per animal.

• 2 to 4 weeks pre-freshening: 100 square feet or one freestall per animal.

In a freestall setting, aim for these stall dimensions:

• 6 to 9 months old: 30 x 54 inches
• 9 to 12 months old: 34 x 60 inches
• 12 to 18 months old: 36 x 69 inches
• 18 months old to 2 to 4 weeks pre-freshening: 40 x 84 inches
• 2 to 4 weeks pre-freshening: 43 x 96 inches

Bunk space basics
The Gold Standards housing guidelines also give advice on feeding space and stocking density in heifer pens. It’s important not to skimp on feeding space during the colder months of the year.

This is when heifers need extra energy to maintain growth. If they don’t have adequate space to eat, they may not be getting enough nutrients to sustain growth.

Follow these recommendations for target feeding space:

• 6 to 12 months old: 18 inches per head
• 12 to 18 months old: 20 inches per head
• 18 months old to freshening: 24 inches per head
• 3 weeks prior to freshening: 30 inches per head

When assessing stocking density and pen assignments, consider the following:

• Freestall or open-lot housing should provide total bunk space inches to allow all animals to eat at the same time.

• Feeding systems with headlocks or slants should provide an animal-to-stall stocking density of 1-to-1, or be stocked at a rate to accommodate the target feeding space guidelines mentioned above (example: heifers 3 weeks prior to freshening in 24-inch stalls should be stocked at 80 percent).

• Pre-fresh heifers should be housed separately from close-up, adult cows.

DCHA’s Gold Standards I and II establish production and performance standards for Holstein heifers from birth to 6 months old and from 6 months old to freshening. PD

The Dairy Calf & Heifer Association is dedicated to serving the dairy calf and heifer industry. DCHA strives to provide information, education and access to leading research and technology to help its members be more profitable. For more information about DCHA and the Gold Standards, visit or call 877-HEIFERS .

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