The key aspects of a good calf shed

With not long left until the spring-calving season is in full swing, it is paramount that your calf-housing facilities are up to scratch for the expected number of calves to be housed on your farm this spring.

In recent times, poor beef prices and adverse weather conditions have resulted in backlogs of calves – meaning calves have to be kept for longer periods of time on farms.

This, along with the expansion of the dairy sector, has put pressure on calf-rearing facilities, in some cases.

It is essential that farmers assess their calf-rearing facilities, before calving kicks off, to ensure they are up to the task for this coming season.

There are many factors that farmers should take into consideration when they are examining their calf housing, including: space; ventilation; dryness; draughts; cleanliness; and temperature.

Space

Having adequate space for calves is hugely important. Overstocked sheds result in damp bedding and poor air quality leading to an increased risk of disease in young calves.

Animal Health Ireland (AHI) recommends having 1.7m² per calf and an air space of 7m³ per calf.

Image source: AHI

Teagasc has also advised farmers to assess their ‘peak’ calf requirements; in other words, check to see if you will have enough space for all calves when you reach the maximum number of calves on your farm during the season.

Where space is an issue, there are some alternative housing options available that will help get farmers through the busy calving period.

Also Read: Alternative options to building a new calf shed

Ventilation

In terms of ventilation, the calf shed should deliver fresh air to animals. However, it must be free from any draughts.

To prevent draughts, some farmers use straw or hay bales along open sides of buildings as a way of blocking the wind from reaching the calves. However, it is important to remember that the shed must not be completely sealed.

Adequate ventilation in a calf house is a major problem on some farms. If fresh air is circulated through the house, it will kill bacteria and viruses. The air should move in through the inlets and exit through the outlet at the apex.

However, farmers need to ensure that the inlets and outlets are big enough. Having air coming from both sides is very beneficial.

Image source: Teagasc

Many farmers have switched to Yorkshire boarding to increase the amount of air that enters the unit; this type of boarding keeps rain out, while also maximising the air in the shed.

Normally, Yorkshire boarding consists of two rows of boards (6in). A 2in gap is left between the boards and the rows are normally 2in apart.

This method allows air to enter through the boarding and exits through an adequate-sized outlet at the apex, bringing any diseases with it.

Whether it is Yorkshire boarding, space boarding or vent sheeting that is used, ensuring that there is sufficient airflow is very important.

Dry/good drainage

Farmers must ensure that calves are provided with a deep, dry bed of straw. Dampness can be avoided by ensuring that the floor is constructed in such a manner that it allows urine and excess liquid to flow away.

Wood shavings or bark chips can also be used to provide calves with dry-lying conditions.

One way of identifying a moisture problem is by kneeling on the straw to see how wet or dry the bedding actually is. A dry bed should equal dry knees.

Key advice for keeping bedding clean:
  • When the calves are in residence, don’t wash down calf shed floors or utensils in the calf shed itself;
  • Good design and drainage of the calf pens are essential to keep the beds dry and ensure they don’t need to be washed down to keep them clean;
  • Clean the shed when it’s empty, as this limits the overall degree of dampness or wetness in the calf shed.

Temperature

Deep beds of straw are an effective way of protecting the young calf from the cold. They should be able to nest, so that their legs are covered by straw when lying down.

According to Teagasc, calves require up to 20kg/head/week of straw bedding in order to maintain dry conditions on concrete floors. However, this quantity – it says – can be halved by using slats under the straw.

Breathable and washable calf jackets are also a useful way of keeping a dry, newborn calf warm up to one month-of-age.

However, care should be taken when cleaning these to prevent the possible spread of disease among calves.

Other considerations

In addition to a deep bed of straw, calf houses should have water troughs along with meal feeders and hay/straw racks installed.

When grouping calves, ideally no more than 60 calves should be kept within the same air space and calves should be grouped according to age. A calf shed should also not share an air space with older animals.

Also Read: Video: Important factors to consider when it comes to calf accommodation

Moreover, feeding equipment should be washed after each use and a dedicated area – protected from faecal contamination and away from adult animals – should be used for washing equipment.

Finally, as soon as possible after the calves leave the shed, it should be cleaned out, power washed and disinfected thoroughly.

A long rest period between one season and the next is an effective means of ensuring that bugs are eliminated from the calf house.