Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Ensuring housing is suitable for dairy bred calves

Sarah Pick, Knowledge Exchange Manager – National Assistant writes about the most recent AHDB-funded calf discussion group meeting which focused on calf housing and its effect on youngstock health and performance. 

The discussion group was set up last summer in partnership with Meadow Quality to encourage farmer-to-farmer learning and discussion on improved youngstock health. Eight calf rearers form part of the group, which is facilitated by Nick Gibbon of Belmont Vets.

The group meets every three months, with each rearer taking it in turns to host the meeting. At the last meeting, the conversation focused on calf housing and ventilation specialist Dr Mike Wolf from the USA led the discussion

Adequate housing is essential for promoting calf health; one of the major causes of mortality and poor performance in youngstock is pneumonia. The disease can often be avoided if buildings are well designed and managed with good ventilation and drainage.



Dr Wolf gave us some top tips on how to assess whether housing is suitable:

1. Housing
One of the best ways to assess if the housing is adequate is to keep accurate records of calf weights and incidence of disease. Calves should be growing at least 0.7kg/day up to weaning and should be double their birthweight by this time. Pneumonia incidence is also important to record, with fewer than 15 cases of the disease expected in every 100 calves reared, or 15 per cent of the batch.

2. Ventilation
Good ventilation removes stale, damp air which helps ensure viruses and bacteria can’t survive for long outside the animal. Large sheds are unsuitable for calves due to their low bodyweight, they can’t generate enough heat to drive the ‘stack effect,’ resulting in less air movement. In these cases, mechanical ventilation should be considered. It must be designed to the height and specific requirements of the building and it’s best to seek expert advice. This will determine the duct diameter and length, the fan capacity and diameter of the outlet holes in the duct.

Ventilation can be assessed in a number of non-evasive ways. The presence of flies and cobwebs are a sign of poor ventilation. Flies can be reduced by using fly tapes early in the season. Also, after feeding look at the distribution of calves within the shed. If they are all huddled in one area, this area must be providing them with their preferred environment so try and replicate this across the shed.

3. Drainage
Adequate drainage is particularly important as bacteria thrive in wet conditions. By removing moisture the risk of disease is reduced. It is recommended that concrete floors have a minimum slope of one in 60 across the whole pen, and one in 20 for areas with expected high moisture levels. This will allow effective drainage of water and urine from under straw. This is particularly important when calves are being fed using machines as often more moisture is produced.

4. Bedding
Bedding reduces contact between the calf and the floor and any soiled straw, it also keeps the calves warm. Where possible, calves should be cleaned out every three weeks to reduce moisture and bacterial load.

Remember changes to calf housing do not need to be done all at once. You’ll soon start to see the benefits when small changes are made as and when time and money allow.

For more information on designing or making alterations to calf housing please read the BRP+ document ‘Better calf housing’ available on the AHDB Beef & Lamb website. Alternatively watch our videos Assessing calf buildings and Assessing ventilation.



Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture (RUMA) are running a campaign on calf health that focuses on reducing respiratory disease. You can follow the campaign online by using the #calfhealth