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Wood or plastic? Housing plays a big role in calf health

Brian Wesemann for Progressive Dairyman Published on 24 May 2016
Newer styles of plastic hutches have sliding roof panels that offer protection and shade when needed, back vents to adjust ventilation and roof designs that can help channel rain off to the side, keeping the pen area drier.

Every dairy producer knows healthy calves require a healthy environment. This includes sound biosecurity measures and standard operating procedures (SOPs) that focus on sanitation and the elimination of disease transfer.

Using a hutch that provides individualized space and has an easily cleanable surface is the first step toward making sure your calf housing is adequate and secure.

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Why wood works

Many dairies and calf ranches, especially in Western states, utilize wood-framed housing for many reasons. These traditional structures are relatively inexpensive to build, have a long life and provide adequate weather protection.

For some dairies or calf ranches, sanitation SOPs for wood housing dictate scraping the hutch clean of manure, then letting it sit fallow for a week before being re-used. Others scrape the hutch clean, followed by liming or whitewashing. And other dairies’ protocols outline scrape, power wash, then lime or whitewash.

Maintaining a biosecure environment for young calves in wood hutches can also require a significant amount of downtime, which cuts into any operation’s efficiency and profits. With most herds turning calves in 90 days, there are always new calves waiting for the older calves to move out.

Producers often say they don’t have the option of a few days of downtime between turns. Even those religious about cleaning hutches admit they sometimes skip cleaning because more calves are coming or because the weather does not cooperate.

However, a rigorous cleaning schedule is vital to providing a healthy growing environment for the calf. Rough, porous wood surfaces are not easily cleaned and disinfected, elements which are key to maintaining that type of environment.

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Thus, strict adherence to SOP cleanliness standards, as reviewed above, may not be enough to keep calves healthy.

Calf housing, no matter what material, should be cleaned and sanitized after each calf. Depending on your farm’s calf-weaning program, this could be every six to eight weeks.

What are the possibilities with plastic?

One particular farm I worked with took great pains to disinfect the wood, so much so that hutches would often sit open for 10 to 14 days. By making the switch to plastic hutches cleaned with a power-washer, that turnaround time was sometimes reduced to less than a day.

Modular, plastic-enhanced calf-housing systems provide calf and heifer raisers with the opportunity to properly clean and disinfect the pen in a more timely manner, thus reducing potential mortality and morbidity rates when compared to calves raised in wood housing.

When cleaning and sanitizing calf housing, be sure to use the right sanitizing products for the problematic pathogens on your farm. Talk with your veterinarian about the diseases present on your farm and work with them to choose the right cleaning product. For example, it won’t help to reduce scours caused by E. coli if you’re treating equipment to eliminate cryptosporidium – or vice versa.

Protection from the elements is another benefit to plastic hutches. Producers in Western states combat extreme heat, blizzards and every element in between.

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Newer styles of plastic hutches have sliding roof panels that offer protection and shade when needed, back vents to adjust ventilation and roof designs that can help channel rain off to the side, keeping the pen area drier. Some hutches also include a front door for easy calf loading and access.

With ample individualized space, easy access and easily cleanable surfaces, plastic hutches can help keep your calves healthy, strong and growing as future productive members of the herd.  PD

PHOTO: Newer styles of plastic hutches have sliding roof panels that offer protection and shade when needed, back vents to adjust ventilation and roof designs that can help channel rain off to the side, keeping the pen area drier. Photo provided by Calf-Tel Hampel Animal Care.

Brian Wesemann
  • Brian Wesemann

  • Director of Sales
  • Calf-Tel Hampel Animal Care
  • Email Brian Wesemann

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