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Roundtable: Calf housing management and health

Jenny Dierickx Published on 20 July 2011

Raising healthy calves is one of the most important facets to a dairy’s success. Emphasis should be placed on calf housing as one of the key elements in managing overall calf health. In this roundtable, three calf raisers from across the country talk about how their investment in calf housing influences their ability to manage the overall health, comfort, hygiene and transitions of their calves.

Meet the panelists:
• Justin Ball, owner and calf manager, Deer Creek Feeding, LLC in Dalhart, Texas



• Doug Welker, manager, Lakeshore Dairy in Wilson, New York

• Joel Sutter, herdsman, Fertile Ridge Dairy in Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin

Q. Tell us about your operation.

BALL: Deer Creek Feeding, LLC is a family-owned custom calf-raising operation located in Dalhart, Texas, that raises calves for 15 different dairies throughout Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas. My family incorporated calf raising about five years ago with one calf and now our operation is home to over 16,000 head.

WELKER: The newest of three dairies owned by Lamb Farms Inc., we currently milk 1,600 cows and care for 200 calves. We are located in western New York on the shore of Lake Ontario, hence the name Lakeshore Dairy.


SUTTER: Fertile Ridge Dairy milks 600 cows in a recently expanded facility, which includes a new 70-calf nursery located on the south end of the dairy property. Calves have been housed in this pen-system nursery since October 2010 and were previously housed in hutches.

Q. Tell us about your calf housing system – from birth to 6 months old?

BALL: Bull and heifer calves are moved from the dairy to Deer Creek Feeding at 1 day old and will stay in a calf hutch until 90 days old. At any given time, we have about 7,500 calves, 6,500 of which are raised in plastic hutches and 1,000 in wood huts.

At 3 months old, they move into group pens, housing anywhere from 25 to 100 calves per pen depending on space in the corral. The corrals are home to about 10,000 heifers total. Some calves return back to their respective dairy when they are 4 to 5 months old, while others get bred and return home as springing heifers two to three months prior to calving.

WELKER: Calves are moved to hutches as soon as they are dry. We feed pasteurized waste milk twice daily for seven weeks and then once daily for two weeks. Calves stay in the hutches for three months. This is longer than the norm, but we feel they transition much better at that age.

From here, they are moved to a transition barn in pens of four, where they remain for approximately one month, depending on space. Then they move to a Virginia-style barn in groups of eight, where they stay for seven to eight months before they are moved to a separate heifer facility. Our mortality rate to this age is 1.5 percent.


SUTTER: Calves are removed from the birth dam within an hour after calving. Heifer calves and elite bull calves are fed colostrum replacer and given a hyper-immune bovine colostrum bolus, then immediately moved to an individual pen within the nursery. Bull calves are fed pasteurized colostrum and put in a group hut pen, then sold to a local dairy beef producer within 48 hours.

Nursery pens are bedded with wood shavings and gradually topped off with fresh straw. The calves stay in the nursery for eight to 10 weeks and then are transitioned into a small group prior to being weaned and moved to the neighboring farm for rearing.

Q. What measures do you take to ensure your calves have comfortable housing? What role does the type of calf housing play in calf comfort?

BALL: The type of housing is essential to calf comfort because it relates to our ability to provide a warm, clean, disease-free environment for the calves at a point in their life where they are most fragile. Calves need to have ample room to move around and have space to grow and build muscle. Plastic hutches provide such an environment that results in good overall health and weight gains.

WELKER: Our hutches are on a stone base, and we keep them well bedded as needed. The hutches are placed close together, but every other hutch is faced the opposite way to prevent disease transmission. Good ventilation and little disease transmission are the major benefits of hutches in my opinion.

SUTTER: Our pens are completely enclosed under a roof, for maximum flexibility in both hot and cold weather. The walls consist of 4 feet of concrete, which helps block drafts and inclement weather from the calf level, topped off by climate-controlled curtains. A ventilation tube runs the entire length of the barn to add additional fresh air flow, year-round. Plastic pens and concrete base make it easier to keep calves dry and clean.

Q. Sanitation of calf housing is an important part of calf rearing. Tell me about the process you use to clean and disinfect your calf housing. Any tricks of the trade or processes you have found to work well? Ideas to share with other producers?

BALL: After calves are moved to the group pens, we move the plastic hutches and scrape away all manure and straw, letting the ground air out as long as possible. Each hutch gets pressure washed to remove any organic matter and hutches are sanitized with quaternary ammonia.

Plastic hutches are so easy to clean and disinfect. I still have about 1,000 wood crates left on the farm and wish I could just burn them because they are so hard to clean and move around.

WELKER: Our hutches get power washed and then scrubbed with a disinfectant solution between calves and are kept empty as long as possible. We also leave the stone base open as long as possible and refresh with new stone as needed before putting the hutches back down. The grain and water pails also get scrubbed between calves.

SUTTER: Between calves, the pens are deconstructed, power washed and sanitized. The plastic walls make it easy to clean and disinfect. After several days, they are reassembled and bedded with fresh pine shavings. The pens sit on a slight slope, with a small gutter for fluids to drain in the front of the pens.

This allows the flow of spilled liquids and urine without it staying underneath the calf. This drain also has made it easy and efficient for the calf manager to dump and rinse water buckets after each feeding, as we try to keep fresh water in front of the calves at all times.

Q. Tell me about any measures you have implemented to ensure calf comfort throughout the year (i.e. ventilation, bedding, fly control, etc.) to manage seasonal and/or climate changes. How does your calf housing make seasonal transitions easier for your calves?

BALL: The climate here in Dalhart consists of daily temperature swings of 40 degrees and constant 30-mile-per-hour winds, so calf comfort through the changing seasons is important. We raise a lot of Jersey calves, so it’s important to keep them warm, especially in winter.

Plastic hutches make it easy to bed the calves right on the ground with straw, and we use calf jackets to keep them warm. We use sand for bedding in the summer to keep the calves cooler and minimize flies. Flies are controlled with bait and spray.

WELKER: Our hutches have the opening in the back, which makes it convenient for bedding, but also works great for ventilation in the summer time. In the warm months we bed with sawdust only. In the winter we put down about six inches of sawdust, then straw on top of that. Transition housing is also bedded that same way.

Hutches get sprayed weekly for flies starting at the first sight of flies. Our older calf housing also gets sprayed for flies weekly, plus we put a pour-on on all calves out of hutches. Seasonal transition with hutches is easier because of the superior ventilation; there are no ups and downs in air quality.

SUTTER: The adjustable curtains really work well for us, and allow us full flexibility for day-to-day weather changes and dealing with both hot summer weather and cold, windy winter conditions.

Q. Have you had any specific calf challenges – health, growth, etc., – with your calf housing? If so, what have you done to address the challenge?

BALL: On any calf ranch, your biggest health challenge is calf scours in the first two weeks of life. It is important to start the calves off as healthy as possible because it will follow them for the rest of their lives and determine whether or not they will be high-producing cows.

I don’t have control over whether or not the calf was fed good, clean, adequate colostrum at the dairy before it arrives at my facility, but once they arrive at my farm, calves have blood taken to check if they have received adequate colostrum. Every calf is ear notched to screen for BVD. Calves are fed pasteurized milk three times per day.

WELKER: We have not had many problems with our calves. If we do have an occasional problem, it most always goes back to a flaw in the daily management. We try to identify and correct the problem as soon as possible.

SUTTER: We have experienced significantly less calf health challenges since moving to the internal pen system. Previously, our hutches made it difficult to keep calves from being crowded together, keep them dry and keep their feed and water clean.

The pens allow us a means to block calf-to-calf contact and keep the feed and water in clean condition. We’ve not solved all health challenges, but the spread of an illness is noticeably easier to control.

Q. When you make an investment in calf housing, what is most important to you?

BALL: When it comes to calf housing, durability of the product is very important as well as the ease in which the hutch can be cleaned and sanitized. If the hutch is not durable, my labor force will destroy them.

In the early years, our farm was growing so rapidly and, based on our needs, it was cost-effective to buy used hutches. I didn’t have concerns with bringing in disease because I knew plastic hutches could be cleaned and sanitized, unlike wood crates which seem to house disease and are in constant need of repair.

WELKER: The most important point when making an investment in calf housing is whether or not the housing allows for ease in caring for the calves, and our calf feeders really like the rear-opening hutches. Another factor important to me is the height of the front opening.

Since we house our calves in the hutches longer, a higher opening hutch is better for us. With the smaller hutches, the calves get so big they rub their backs on the top of the hutches.

SUTTER: It was important to us to be able to keep calves clean and dry, as well as their feed. Of course, we needed durable housing, made of the type of material that could last a long time, and be a good return on investment, and also not harbor disease.

When we expanded the milking herd last year, we obviously had to deal with twice as many calves. That’s what led us to looking at our current pen system. I think most producers would agree more calves can mean more challenges. But for us, this housing change actually meant more calves and less challenges. PD