Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

Designing cow-centered facilities for replacements

Robert E. Graves Published on 18 September 2012


Cow-centered dairy farms include animal- and worker-friendly procedures and facilities for raising dairy replacements from birth to pre-calving.



They provide clean, dry and comfortable living spaces for these important animals and accommodate non-uniform calving rates and the changing animal needs based on age, weight, health and management.

A variety of housing types and arrangements can be used to assemble a productive replacement raising system including:

• Individual baby calf pen or hutch
• Weaned group calf pen
• Bedded pack
• Freestall
• Pasture

Penn State agricultural engineers have assembled over 70 plans along with design information including grouping tables and growth charts (Penn State Housing Plans for Calves and Heifers, NRAES-201, click here for website). This handy reference will help farmers, their advisers and contractors to develop and build a modern calf and heifer-centered system. Important items to consider include:

• Changing needs of growing animals for space, feed and management
• Variability in calving patterns – calvings per month and sex
• Health and death loss
• Management goals
• Observation and treatment requirements
• Infectious disease control (chore patterns, manure flow, air flow, animal movement, shared equipment, vectors and visitors)
• Excellent ventilation


The number, growth and distribution of heifer calves will vary from herd to herd and year to year. Sizing and selecting buildings for calves and heifers for a particular size herd will always be an estimate, but you have to start somewhere. If you don’t have any data for your herd, the following procedure for estimating housing needs for a herd with 100 mature cows (females that have calved at least once) may be helpful:

• Assume 1.05 calvings per cow in herd per year (100 x 1.05 = 105 calves)
• Calves per month if uniform calving (105/12= 8.8 calves)
• Assume 1:1 heifer:bull ratio (8.8/2 = 4.4 heifers per month)
• 95 percent of heifers are raised (4.4 x 0.95= 4 calves raised per month)
• 24 months total grow-out period (24 x 4 = 96 total animals)
• Assume six to eight weeks in individual housing and six to eight weeks in weaned calf pens
• Oversize facilities for birth to 300-pound animals by 50 percent to account for variability in numbers of heifer calves and to allow for sanitation between animals
• Flexibility in grouping and feeding for animals over 300 pounds is necessary to accommodate bulges in animal numbers as they work through the system
• System will house animals to approximately one month prior to freshening (23 months)

Other influences that can impact animal numbers and distribution may include improvements in calving procedures that result in more live births, growth in herd size and decrease in sickness and mortality in the replacement enterprise. PD

In addition to Penn State Housing Plans for Calves and Heifers, other publications related to housing and raising dairy replacements can be found by clicking here and clicking here .

—Excerpts from Penn State Dairy Digest , December 2011



Robert E. Graves
Professor of Agricultural & Biological Engineering
Penn State University