Dairy Calf Housing

Calves have different needs than cows, so it is important to consider calf care separately from that of the cows on a farm.  The biggest priority in raising calves is maintaining good health, so that their energy is used towards growing not fighting disease.  There are three forces interacting in any disease process: the infectious agent (such as a virus or bacteria), the environment, and the host (animal being infected).  How these forces interact determine the course of disease.  Appropriate management creates an environment which is not conducive to disease spread and healthy, robust calves capable of fighting off infection.

Maternity Pen:  The newborn calf’s very first environment is the maternity pen.  Therefore, it is crucial that cleanliness is maintained there.  This may be an individual pen or a group pen, but should be separate from the main milking herd, well ventilated and bedded, and closely monitored for calvings that need assistance.  Cows should be moved to this pen as close to calving as possible and the pen should be cleaned after each calving, removing afterbirth and providing fresh bedding.  It is recommended that dairy calves be separated from their dams immediately to prevent disease spread and ensure adequate colostrum intake.  Calves should be administered 3-4 quarts of high quality colostrum within twelve hours of birth.  This first milk contains antibodies to help fight infection while the calves own immune system develops, and they can only be absorbed well in those first twelve hours.  If calves are to be moved either across the farm or to a calf-rearing facility, they should be transported in clean, well bedded and ventilated vehicles with enough room for them to comfortably lie down.

Pre-Weaned Calves:  It is generally recommended that calves be raised in individual pens or hutches for the first four weeks of life to prevent disease transmission.  There are many designs available for this purpose and calves can be raised either outdoors or within a barn.  If in a barn, calves should be kept in a separate building from adult cows.  After four weeks, they can be kept in small groups to facilitate socialization prior to weaning.

The best ways to keep calves healthy and comfortable is by maintaining adequate nutrition, ventilation, and cleaning.  Making sure your calves are getting enough calories will help maintain their immune systems as well as keep them growing.  This amount can be much higher in the cold winter months, when calves are using energy to keep warm.  We recommend feeding a milk replacer with 20% fat and 20% protein or greater.  Remember, calves will start using energy reserves to keep warm at higher temperatures than cows.

Ventilation is crucial for calf health as well as that of calf caretakers.  Buildup of ammonia and manure gases in the air can damage the airways’ natural defenses, making calves more susceptible to respiratory disease.  Natural ventilation is achieved through wind and air currents moving through a barn, or ventilation can also be produced mechanically.  Either system can be effective, but it is important to protect calves from drafts and provide adequate bedding for warmth.  In the summer months, ventilation becomes important for dissipating body heat as well.

Scours, a significant disease in calves, is caused by a variety of agents in the calf’s environment, so it is important to have disinfection protocols for everything in direct contact with the calf.  This includes pens or hutches, feeding equipment, treatment equipment (e.g. esophageal feeders), and caretakers’ hands, boots, and clothing.  These should all be cleaned of organic debris and then disinfected between calves or feedings.  Maintaining hygiene in the calf area can help prevent spread of diarrhea.

Weaned Calves:  Once calves are weaned, they have begun to develop some immunity and tend to have fewer issues with disease than pre-weaned calves.  However, it is important to continue to maintain sufficient nutrition, ventilation, and hygiene.  They should also still be monitored for signs of illness, particularly respiratory disease which can affect older calves.  Calves may still be in individual pens at the time of weaning, or they may be house in small groups.  Either way, they should be gradually introduced into larger groups over time so as not to stress them.

Calves have their own unique set of needs and special care needs to be taken to meet these when raising calves on the dairy farm.  Follow these guidelines to provide a healthy start for your calves.
– Ensure a good beginning in a clean maternity pen with sufficient colostrum.
– Control disease spread through separation of young calves from cows and each other, as well as thorough cleaning of calf equipment and housing.
-Provide adequate ventilation while supporting temperature regulation appropriate for the season.
-Maintain optimal nutrition for growth and health.
-Transition your calves slowly through the weaning period and into group housing to minimize stress.