Ideal housing for calf rearing

Farms must have enough single calf igloos to house all newborn calves aged zero to three weeks. In addition, there must be room for the heifers that are reared for up to four months. Calves aged three weeks and over can be housed in group hutches. This means that there must be single calf hutches for approximately 15% of the number of cows and group hutches for 15% of the number of cows. Animals should be assigned to small, fixed groups of the same age.

The first weeks of the calf

Newborn calves must be housed individually in the first three weeks, so that they can stay in a hygienic environment and receive the care and attention they need.

Below are a few considerations: 

  • Ensure that there is a sufficient amount of clean straw in the calving barn. Remember to disinfect the calf's navel immediately after the birth. Remove a calf as soon as possible after birth and move it to a 100% clean single-calf hutch (cleaned and disinfected!). For transport, use a specially reserved, cleaned, and disinfected calf barrow with clean straw placed in it. Afterwards, give the animal a sufficient quantity of good-quality colostrum as soon as possible.
  • Avoid all contact with other calves.
  • Calves should be housed in single calf hutches for at least the first three weeks in order to provide the best conditions for checking feed intake, developing active immunity, susceptibility to diarrhoea, etc.
  • To avoid airborne disease transmission, young calves should not be housed in the same area as older calves.
  • Ensure that the flooring is clean and dry. Place fresh straw every day, ensuring that there is enough straw to cover the knees of a calf in a lying position.

Best possible calf housing

The following aspects are essential in ensuring the best possible housing for calves and the best possible rearing period:

The right temperature for the calves

Ensuring the right temperature plays a crucial role in providing the best housing for calves.
Calves are resistant to cooler temperatures and cold air, provided they are able to lie on a dry surface and are given sufficient feed. A calf body warmer helps to keep the calf at a good temperature.
Excessively high temperatures are harmful to calves: they can lead to reduce feed intake and vitality, in turn hampering calves’ growth. Igloos in particular can vary significantly in temperature when placed in the sun. CalfOTel® boxes are made from Fibreglass-reinforced polyester (UP) that is equipped with a white, double-coated top layer to reflect sunlight. As a result, the box stays much cooler than most other igloos.

Provide plenty of fresh air, avoiding draughts, ammonia, and germs, and ensure that the pen is placed at a suitable location.

Group housing

  • You should adopt an ‘all in, all out’ system, as this produces the best results. During the first fourth months, assign calves to groups with members that are no less than two weeks apart in age, and avoid mixing groups. Do not put the animals in mixed-age groups!
  • Do not group animals until they are above three weeks old. Smart small and scale up slowly. You should leave the calf in a familiar environment (assigning the calf to a large group or relocating the calf will cause stress, which will have a negative impact on the calf's resistance and feed intake).
  • Use an automated dispenser for feeding: it will not only make your work easier but will also ensure accurate feeding. If your pens are ‘all in, all out’, use a milk taxi or milk shuttle. An automatic calf feeder is suitable for large group housing.

Best location for calf housing on a dairy farm

  • Housing should face south-west or west of the cowshed in order to avoid the introduction of bacteria or viruses from the cowshed.
  • The flooring must be flat and easy to clean. A poured concrete floor finished by power trowelling is preferred. This floor must be laid at a 2% gradient. (The fewer joints the floor has, the easier it is to clean or coat [if applicable]). Ensure that the rainwater does not enter the pens and cause the straw to become wet.
  • The pens should be placed with the thickest side facing the prevailing rain or wind direction.
  • You should provide shelter against wind in order to improve working conditions for livestock attendants.

Advantages and disadvantages

Advantages of outdoor rearing

  • Best possible climate for calves (microclimate), to prevent infections
  • Calves are protected as much as possible against infection from older calves
  • Significantly lower infection rate than in a fixed barn
  • Easier to monitor calves
  • The box or calf can be easily relocated if there are issues
  • Cheaper solution than building a shed

Disadvantages of outdoor rearing

  • Less convenient working conditions (in terms of lighting, water, electricity, etc.)
  • Drainage of urine and rainwater must be properly controlled (impermeable surface at a 2% gradient).

Ventilation in igloos

  • Best possible climate for calves (microclimate), to prevent infections
  • Calves are protected as much as possible against infection from older calves
  • Significantly lower infection rate than in a fixed barn
  • Easier to monitor calves
  • The box or calf can be easily relocated if there are issues
  • Cheaper solution than building a shed

Reflecting sunlight

  • CalfOTel boxes are made from special, coated Fibreglass-reinforced polyester (UP).
  • In combination with the special double-coated, white top layer, the material reflects sunlight
  • and prevents the box from heating up in the sun.

Costs of calf housing

Decisions regarding how to rear calves are all too often based on cost. However, given the importance of good rearing, this is often unjustified. To illustrate: the costs of rearing a heifer are between €1,200 and €1,800. For a farm rearing 30 heifers per year, this is an amount of €36,000 to €54,000 per year.

This is disproportionate to the investment in calf rearing, which includes one-off investment in housing as well as the replacement of teats and drinking buckets, the use of disinfectants, the use of straw, etc. Cutting back on this at the expense of quality is absolutely not recommended.

    Making the most of early-life growth

    The younger an animal, the higher its protein efficiency ratio – in other words, the better the animal uses protein from food for growth. Make sure you utilize this when rearing your calves.

    What causes loss in results in practice?

    • Incorrect colostrum feeding (in terms of quality, amount, and tempo)
    • Sub-optimal feed (in terms of quality, quantity, temperature, and water)
    • Inadequate housing (in terms of animal welfare, climate)
    • Poor hygiene (infection rate)
    • Health problems (infections and nutritional disorders)
    • Poor management (incorrect or careless execution of protocols)

    (For the first three weeks, it is mainly diarrhoea problems that can harm calves. After three weeks, respiratory problems are more common.)

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