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News > Calf Accommodation – fit for purpose?


Calf Accommodation – fit for purpose?

January 11, 2023

Calf housing has a crucial role in rearing the dairy cow of the future. The pre and post weaning stage for a calf will determine its future health, growth and performance.

Trevor Alcorn, CAFRE Dairying Development Adviser based in Omagh says that “Traditionally on many farms, calves were housed in old or redundant buildings that served their purpose for a smaller number of calves for that time. With herd size increasing and less availability of labour, many dairy farms have renewed or are in the process of renewing calf housing”.

Trevor continues to explain that there are a variety of options available, depending on the farm’s specific requirements. However, all calf housing should meet basic requirements of being clean and cleanable, dry with excess moisture continually removed and draught free. On a more detailed level, Trevor advises that other factors should be considered as follows.

Hygiene – good hygiene for young calves is essential as their immune system is not fully developed. Approx. 50% of calf deaths are due to poor hygiene. Consider all in or all out systems with all materials easily cleaned and not porous and consider the milk preparation / cleaning/ drying areas.

Dry and Good Drainage – calves should have a dry bed at all times. Increased moisture or dampness will have an adverse effect on calf health and performance. Applying a 1 in 20 slope in straw bedded pens will help improve drainage. Insert drainage channels to collect run off. Always ensure calves are well bedded – apply the knee test – that is, if you can kneel on the pen floor and not get wet knees then there is sufficient bedding.

Ventilation – fresh air will help reduce the bugs and ammonia in the shed. Viruses survive for a shorter time in fresh air than stale air. The inlet area should be 2-4 times greater than the outlet area to ensure air movement. Yorkshire cladding and raised/ventilated ridge are normally used. Aim for airspeed of 0.15 – 0.30 metres/ second and relative humidity of <80%. Calves will not radiate enough heat to generate the stack effect so consider mechanical ventilation to help create the correct air movement. If it is possible, site the building on the windward side of the farm where it is getting the cleanest of air.

No Draughts – a draught is when wind speed is greater than 0.5 meters/ second below the height of the calf. Aim for solid area, at least 4 feet high, around the bottom of the shed. Consider subdivisions within the shed of a similar height.

Warmth – calves will perform best in temperatures of 15 – 20 degrees Celsius. Young calves, particularly under a month old will feel the cold below 15 degrees Celsius. Ensure a draught free environment. Use deep beds of straw and calves legs should not be seen when lying down. Consider use of calf jackets, heat lamps & quartz heaters for younger calves, those under a month old.

Space Requirements- calves kept on an individual basis, in pens or hutches, must be allowed direct visual and tactile contact with other calves. They must also have sufficient space to stand up, lie down, turn around, stretch and groom.

Table 1: Space requirements for individual calf pens

Calf weightPen size per calf
<60kg1m x 1.5m
60 – 80kg1m x 1.8m

Group housing is recommended from 3 weeks of age – ideally calves of a similar age and drinking speed. This will help social development and growth rates.

Table 2: Space requirements for group housing

Calf weightSpace requirements per calf
50 – 84kg1.5m2
58 – 140kg1.8m2
140 – 200kg2.4m2

Calf housing at the CAFRE Greenmount Dairy Centre

Trevor outlines that new calf housing was recently constructed at CAFRE Greenmount Campus and after much consideration an open sided apex building was decided on with the use of calf igloo’s. This design allowed for 6 igloo’s, 40 individual calf pens, 2 automatic calf feeders with 6 feed stations, straw storage area, milk preparation room, storeroom and isolation area for sick calves. The Greenmount design allows for unrestricted airflow, minimising disease resistance, giving calves choice of an igloo or bedded pen, and individual pens which have solid sides/ cover to reduce draughts.

Trevor concludes that “There is no one best fit solution for calf accommodation. It will depend on what works best for each farm and what the circumstances are. More recent developments tend to be more modular, mobile construction, largely constructed of plastic, which tends to offer better thermal properties for calves. They also tend to offer housing for smaller groups of calves independently, whilst allowing for easy expansion”.

CAFRE Calf Rearing Open Day

Everyone will have an opportunity to view best practice at the CAFRE calf house open day on Thursday 19th January 2023 at Greenmount Campus.The event will demonstrate a number of management strategies relating to health, welfare and labour efficiency in relation to dairy-bred calf rearing. This includes the open building design, feed preparation/cleaning area, automated feeding and the associated performance data from this system. The tour will conclude with a discussion on energy saving practices implemented within the CAFRE dairy herd.

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