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Calf health starts with cleanlinessCalf health starts with cleanliness

No matter the system used, calf management is crucial to the future of your dairy herd.

Chris Torres

January 10, 2022

7 Min Read
calves in barn
GROUP HOUSING: There are many benefits to group-housing calves. Group houses tend to be more labor efficient and easier to clean, but depending on size of the dairy, it’s not for everyone.Fran O’Leary

You can have the best dairy breeding program in the world, but if you don’t have the right environment for your calves, they won’t get off to a good start.

“And the bottom line is that if you’re doing things right, the newborn calf represents the best genetic potential on the farm,” said Dan McFarland, an agricultural engineering educator at Penn State Extension.

Speaking at a recent ag equipment dealer open house in Quarryville, Pa., McFarland said the basic components of calf housing should focus on cleanliness, air quality, draft protection, and making sure calves are getting enough food and water during the day.

Air quality is a big issue for calves as they are highly susceptible to respiratory problems that can lead to pneumonia. If bedding is too damp or there is too much ammonia in the air from poor ventilation, or if overcrowding is an issue, this can lead to respiratory issues.

Keeping pens clean is also important. A clean area helps to keep the coat of a calf erect, McFarland said, which is important in colder weather as the hair fibers help to trap air to form an insulation layer.

“If it becomes matted, they can’t retain heat as much,” he said.

Start at maternity

For cows that are about to give birth, McFarland said it is important to keep this area isolated from mature cow groups and to make sure the pen is clean and well-bedded with a skid-resistant floor.

Maternity pens should measure 12 feet by 12 feet at minimum, but he prefers larger pens if possible.

“And 16-by-16 tends to be more cleaner because of having more space,” McFarland said. If you’re looking at group maternity pens, 200 square feet of bedded area per animal, not counting feed or water, is ideal.

Clean and roomy

The most common types of calf shelters are individual pens, although group pens are becoming more popular. “Each one of those has their advantages and disadvantages. The advantages seen in individual housing are the ability to feed and observe animals individually, one from another,” McFarland says. “So you can recognize an animal that’s not doing well and take care of her immediately, and it minimizes disease transmission, at least animal-to-animal transmission.”

But it has its challenges. There can be long intervals between meals, sometimes 12 hours, if feeding is done twice a day. And when they do eat, the calves tend to gorge, taking it all in at once. Too few meals a day can make these calves hungry, slowing growth.

Group housing is attractive for several reasons, McFarland said. Consumers may like seeing animals in a larger pen with other animals. Research, he said, points to better growth potential as calves in group pens often get more frequent meals. The calves also seem calmer as they get used to each other, which in the long run will benefit them as more mature cows.

Not surprisingly, group pens can be more labor efficient, especially on larger dairies, McFarland said. Machines can get into group pens easier for cleaning.

“But they have challenges, too,” he says. “The feeding systems need to work. They need to be cleaned; they need to be managed properly.”


ENVIRONMENT COUNTS: Dan McFarland, ag engineering educator with Penn State, said calf housing should focus on providing the cleanest possible environment for the calf, one that provides a comfortable environment for the calf to grow efficiently and healthy.

Whether individual or group pens, McFarland said that positioning the building is crucial. Calves should be upwind of any manure or air flow as they are most susceptible to health problems.

Breeding intervals will vary by farm; no two farms are the same when it comes to breeding. One thing to keep in mind, he said, is to allow some time between pen occupants as it takes 10 to 14 days for pathogens to die off to a level that it won’t affect the next animals.

“And so that means that we need to increase pen numbers by 25% to 50% so we allow for that idle time, but also allow more periods where we’re going to have more heifers in a month than we do typically,” McFarland said.

The best way to break the disease cycle is the concept of all in, all out using hutches, which can be picked up, cleaned and moved to another location. You can also do this in open-front buildings using pull dividers where you pull them out, clean the area and leave it idle.

McFarland said the comfort zone for a baby calf is between 58 and 78 degrees F when they are born. At 1 month old, it increases from 32 to 73 degrees. When it’s colder, calves will need more calories to produce heat. They also must retain heat, so draft protection and jackets can be crucial. When the weather is warmer, constant access to clean, fresh water becomes more important.

Individual vs. groups

The individual pen should be 4 feet by 8 feet, or 32 square feet, twice as deep as they are wide, McFarland said. This enables the separation of the feeding area from the resting area.

But McFarland thinks producers should consider large pens if possible; something like a 4-foot-by-10-foot or even 4-foot-by-12 foot. “What producers are telling me is that they use less bedding with these larger pens than they did with the smaller ones, simply because they’re keeping that resting area cleaner,” he says.  

Individual pens should have solid sides, about 4 feet high with an adjustable rear panel so you can open at least the top half of the rear panel for better air to come in.

Impervious surfaces, such as concrete, are durable and easier to clean, McFarland said, but the moisture from these systems must drained. More pervious surfaces improve drainage and can help the bed stay dry, but they must be periodically replaced.

Separate containers for feed and water should be kept, and these should be 12 to 16 inches above the floor.

McFarland said that he doesn’t like to see permanent feed fixtures inside the pen. Rather, they should be placed outside with a separator so the calf doesn’t contaminate the water with the feed.

“Studies have looked at feed efficiency and conversion of starter grain. If you have a feed barrier, it can prevent contamination. And the calves can convert it more efficiently,” he said, adding that water and feed containers should be at least 6 inches apart with individual head openings for each.

At least 6 inches of sawdust should be used for bedding as this will absorb excess moisture. Another 12 inches of straw should be used in cold weather, so the calf can nestle in it and stay warm.

In warmer weather, just sawdust is needed, McFarland said, as straw can draw in flies.

Group housing units can accommodate as little as two calves to as many as 30 calves. These group pens come with many benefits, he said, including better intake at weaning, increased lying time, decreased vocalization, reduced fear in a novel environment and increased ability to learn a task.

There is also more flexibility in that you can do more batch feeding. But you don’t want the age difference in these pens to be more than seven to 10 days, McFarland said.

Calves should be aggressive eaters when they’re in the group so they learn how to eat, but caregivers, he said, should also be good observers.

“They’re not recognizing individual calves as they used to in individual pens,” McFarland said. “Now they’ve got a group of animals that they need to sort out, and it’s sometimes harder for them to do it. So they need to be really good calf persons to do that.”

Group housing should provide 40 square feet of space per head, not including feed and watering areas.

Dividers in baby calf groups should be between 48 and 52 inches high, but the lower portion should be anywhere from 18 to 24 inches solid.

“What you’ll find is the youngest individuals coming into the pen, they’ll just line up along the perimeter against that solid side,” McFarland said. This can offer a good level of draft protection.

In open pens, unless the building design reduces drafts, this might not be the best option. Also, keep pens away from the outside walls in a naturally ventilated building. What will happen, he said, is that when the wind isn’t blowing or is still, that air comes in and drops right down the curtain. If it’s right up against the pen, this will create a drafty area, so move it 2 to 3 feet away.

In the pen feeding area, McFarland said a stable pad of 6 to 8 feet, well-drained with confident footing and sloped for draining, is ideal. You also want to provide 18 inches per head inside the gates to help assimilate them to feeding as a group.

About the Author(s)

Chris Torres

Editor, American Agriculturist

Chris Torres, editor of American Agriculturist, previously worked at Lancaster Farming, where he started in 2006 as a staff writer and later became regional editor. Torres is a seven-time winner of the Keystone Press Awards, handed out by the Pennsylvania Press Association, and he is a Pennsylvania State University graduate.

Torres says he wants American Agriculturist to be farmers' "go-to product, continuing the legacy and high standard (former American Agriculturist editor) John Vogel has set." Torres succeeds Vogel, who retired after 47 years with Farm Progress and its related publications.

"The news business is a challenging job," Torres says. "It makes you think outside your small box, and you have to formulate what the reader wants to see from the overall product. It's rewarding to see a nice product in the end."

Torres' family is based in Lebanon County, Pa. His wife grew up on a small farm in Berks County, Pa., where they raised corn, soybeans, feeder cattle and more. Torres and his wife are parents to three young boys.

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