Calf Care Part 2: Why do dairy farmers house calves in hutches?

Last week I wrote about many of the reasons that we choose to separate newborn calves from their mother cows shortly after their birth (read: Calf Care Part 1: Why do dairy farmers separate calves from their mothers?). In this post I’ll try to explain “what happens next?”

There are several types of calf housing that are commonly used at modern dairy farms. Housing decisions are impacted by many factors including personal preference, management style, space constraints, location, climate, and cost. Here in northeast Kansas, our farm has chosen to use individual plastic hutches, which we refer to as huts, to house calves 0-8 weeks old. We collectively call these animals “hut calves”, and I use the terms “hut” and “hutch” interchangeably.

Why do we house calves individually?

The many benefits of housing calves separately can be summarized simply as management. Individual housing allows us to know exactly what is going in and coming out of each calf. This helps us monitor their development as well as identify illness. This may surprise you, but most of our calves can’t talk (ok, none of our calves can talk). The most common signs that a calf isn’t feeling well are loose manure, called “scours”, or lack of appetite. Individual housing allows us to know quickly and certainly which calf is scouring or not eating. We can then give that calf the extra attention and treatment that she needs.

Calf huts are one of the most comfortable places on the farm when the weather isn’t so great. This calf is warm and dry and out of the snow inside hers. (photo taken winter 2013)

Sick calves bring me to the next reason for individual housing. Kind of like kids at day care, calves in groups can spread illness to each other pretty quickly. Keeping a calf separated from her peers early in life, while her immune system is developing, limits her exposure to bacteria other than her own and therefore reduces the risk that she will get sick. Each of our calves is given their own plastic hut with their own hog panel (3’ fence panels) to form a run in front of their hut, their own grain bucket and their own milk/water bucket. Obviously we reuse these items, but the huts and buckets are sanitized between calves, and if a calf is sick, her buckets can be sanitized more often.

Why do we use plastic hutches?

First, not all hutches are plastic. I’ve seen steel hutches and homemade wooden hutches used at other farms. These options have worked well for other producers, but plastic has a few advantages over each of these. Steel hutches tend to get cold when it’s cold out and hot when it’s hot out (thermodynamically speaking, steel is a conductor). Wood is an insulator, like plastic, but it is organic and porous and might absorb moisture and bacteria, making it harder to sanitize between uses. Plastic is light weight, a good insulator and easy to clean. Also, our hutches were specifically designed and manufactured to house young calves. There are several manufacturers making and selling similar products (ours happen to be made by Calf-Tel), and they’re each appropriately sized and ventilated for one young calf (some do offer products for small groups as well). Our hutches keep calves warm in the winter and offer shade in the summer, and vents and a window can be closed or opened as needed to enhance comfort.

The top left photo demonstrates the mess a calf can make in 8 weeks. We scrub our huts by hand with disinfectant in between uses.

Larger structures offer less shelter and are generally draftier, and they’re stationary. I mentioned that the plastic hutches are lighter weight than those made of other materials because the portable nature of hutches is a notable reason for using them. Not only do we sanitize the huts between uses, we also move them. Before we put a calf in a hutch, we put down a layer of sand. We use sand because it is an inorganic drainable material that will not hold much moisture or bacteria. In the winter, we top the sand with straw for warmth. After the calf is weaned and moved to a pen, we remove the hut and scrape up the sand, straw and manure and haul it onto our fields. When we put down a new layer of sand for the next calf, we will move it slightly so that the hut is not in the exact same spot as the previous one. This again cuts down on the calf’s exposure to bacteria from other calves. After several months, we typically move all of the huts to a new area and let the previous area disinfect with exposure to air, rain, sunlight, etc. The portable nature of the hutches gives us a lot of flexibility in making sure our newborn calves start out in a clean environment.

These three calves are in a new location on a fresh bed of sand. You can see that they have access to the inside and outside of their huts to keep themselves comfortable, and they’re pretty content with the situation.

The final factor that influences housing decisions is always cost. Relative to a permanent building, hutches are a very economical option to provide a high level of comfort and shelter for our calves for about the first two months of their lives. When our calves are 7 or 8 weeks old, they’re ready to be weaned and have nearly outgrown their hutches. They’ll weigh over 200 lbs and can eat plenty of grain to continue growing and developing without milk replacer. They also will have developed more robust immune systems and can be moved into small group pens.

40 thoughts on “Calf Care Part 2: Why do dairy farmers house calves in hutches?

    1. They are housed separately until the calf has her own calf and becomes a cow. Our milking herd is all housed together. There are times where mothers and daughters will have interaction, though, and there does not seem to be any recognition of the relationship by either animal after weaning.

    1. Marc, none of our calves are used for veal. We raise our heifers to be milk cows and sell our bull calves to a local beef farmer who raises them to maturity.

    1. Somewhere around 8-10 weeks old when they’re weaned and eating grain well. We transition them from calf grower pellets to a grain blend before they leave their hutch. The first pen they move to is a larger version of the individual hutch (we call it the “big hut”), and they’ll share it with 3-5 calves the same age.

    1. Christine, I truly believe I do the best I can for my calves and cows. Thanks for reading and at least considering. Certainly people will have differing opinions on almost all issues; however, I’d encourage you to see it first hand before passing final judgement.

      1. When I saw these hutches I thought for sure they were being raised for veal. Thanks for posting!!

  1. Thank you for putting this information together. I have no connection to dairy or beef farming, and am just someone who is weary of seeing the endless hate and misinformation on social media. Thank you for giving me the ability to inform myself. A few minutes of google search is all it took. I wish you and your family all the best.

  2. I was always under the assumption that anytime I saw those hutches that they were veal calves……Wow do I feel a lot better!!

  3. Thank you for the education. Your methods sound like good choices for the safety of both the cows and those who later consume their milk, plus the safety of the business. I don’t think any dairy farm can afford to get a rampant infection on their farm. It is much less costly in both time and money, to take preventive measures, than to wait until a problem develops and then try to reverse the damage done.

  4. Top class article that shows the huge attention to detail that farmers go to for keeping calves healthy and free from infection. Hospitals for humans could learn a thing or two from these keen farmers.

  5. It hurts my heart that the calves are taken away from the mothers, aren’t they upset by this? And is it true that the mother cows are kept pregnant all the time to keep their milk coming year-round? I really do feel better about the calf hutches IF they are owned by a GOOD person, and fed well! I thought those hitches were veal calves and I WILL NOT EAT VEAL OR LAMB. Reading your article and the questions and answers has helped me a lot. Thanks!

    1. Kristen,

      They really are not upset by this. Dairy cows are amazing animals, but they are not people, and they do not experience emotions the way that we do. The cows are given a minimum of 60 days for their bodies to recover from calving before they are rebred. Most of our cows are rebred between 60 and 100 days. Then, 60 to 90 days before calving, they are dried and take a vacation before having their next calf. To maintain our milk supply year round, we have cows calving year-round, so the herd is not all dry (or all milking) at the same time. There are places in the world (such as New Zealand) where seasonal calving is more common, so the herd is all dry and all milking at certain times of the year.

      Thanks for taking the time to read – and when you have concerns, keep asking questions!

      1. This was very informational. I also thought all the calves in the huts were for veal and never saw pasture. I feel much better now about buying dairy products. Thanks.

  6. Thank you for posting this. We are so saturated with the cruel practices of other farms that it’s so comforting to know that there are farms, and a lot of them, like yours out there.

  7. I am currently writing a book about my father who grew up on a Missouri farm in the 1930’s and 1940’s. It was very interesting comparing your techniques in caring for your cows and calves with his so many years ago. They seem virtually identical, except that he did not have the advantage of plastic huts. They used stalls in the barn, which kept the calves warm and protected but required meticulous care when it came to sanitation. Their calves were always healthy, so I guess they made it work. Thank you for taking the time to educate the public in what it takes to put milk in our refrigerators. Farmers are truly among the many unsung heroes in our country.

    1. Thanks for reading, Christine! A lot of farmers have actually gone back toward calf barns in place of hutches. Biggest concerns I see are sanitation and ventilation, but they’re easier to keep warm and dry. To me they make more sense in colder climates than KS.

  8. Yesterday while on my way home, I saw what looked like hundreds of small calves, each in a wire cage that they could barely stand up in let alone turn around. It was only as wide as they were. as tall and as long as they were. What is the purpose of these wire cages? They were not the plastic hutches but wire cages that the animals total movement was constricted. My heart sank when I saw that.

    1. Cindy, I don’t know the answer. That doesn’t sound to me like an environment a calf would thrive in, though. It’s difficult to make money if animals aren’t healthy, so perhaps they had more room for movement than you realize or it was a temporary position rather than long term housing. I’ve not seen any calf housing that fits your description, so I can’t offer much more than that.

  9. Hi, is there a level of compromise here – hygiene and welfare in terms of disease and ease of management vs mental well-being of a calf due to isolation. Cows are after-all social animals. I suppose it is difficult to observe as all your calves are housed the same way but I wonder if you are aware of/notice any negatives to this? Do the cows grow up to be more fearful? Elevated stress levels? Lower immune system due to a sterile environment?

    1. Victoria,

      You ask good questions, and those are all things that influence our management.

      I think a compromise is really exactly what we have. Our calves are separated by open fence panels for the first two months. They absolutely still interact with their neighbors, but for the most part they aren’t able to get their mouth on things their neighbor got their manure on. Just like human babies, calves explore everything with their mouths. Unlike human babies, calves are not born with an immune system bolstered by their mother’s immunity. We do vaccinate for a few things at birth, but we still feel it’s best to let our girls develop better immune systems before grouping them. After weaning, between two and three months of age, the calves are grouped. The groups get larger as the calves get older. The first time they enter a group setting, it is amusing to watch as they explore their surroundings and occasionally get startled by the fact their neighbor is now IN their pen, but the surprise wears off pretty quickly (by dinnertime, they’re all best buds at the feed bunk).

      As far as observing fearfulness…definitely not. If they were stressed, it wouldn’t be safe for us to be in close contact with the cows; they each weigh around 1500 lbs, and a stressed animal is very unpredictable (and doesn’t produce much milk, either). Our cows are very easy going and comfortable with each other and with us and our employees.

      Thank you for taking time to read and comment.


  10. I drive by a dairy farm everyday, and I was wondering why the outside of the pin is so small as in the fenced area around the plastic Hut. Don’t they need a bigger yard to run around in? Do they get out for exercise?

    1. Renee, I can’t comment for every dairy, but we believe our calves have plenty of room to move. They will regularly run back and forth/inside to outside. As they get bigger, they are moved to bigger pens to accommodate their space needs.

  11. In Animal Science 101 at Texas A&M, it mentions stress as a big health issue in all species but pointedly talked about moving dairy calves even short distances by truck and trailer. How do you move your calves, walk them on a leash, carry them in your arms, or what? I never knew stress was such a health factor.

    1. Paula, I agree stress is a huge health factor! As long as the distance is short, we will move the calves by walking them if they will (no leash, just guiding them with our hands) or by carrying them. If the distance is longer, we put them in the bed of a truck with a person holding them. Our young calves don’t travel longer distances than an appropriate with these methods.

      Thanks for your question!

  12. It has been very interesting reading although I am in UK we do have these plastic huts as have seen them when driving had no idea what they were. I do now I don’t eat beef lamb or veal but I do love my milk and cannot drink the vegan milk as allergic to nuts and almonds the main thing they put in them!! But what I want to know is are the calves or cows ever allowed to pasture in fields not just huts ( again I do see cows in fields) but curious when it comes to your farm.
    But … I do thank you for explaining why they are separated as seen some horrific videos on social media where the mother seems very distressed hence why I am doing some research. As I found it really upsetting.

  13. Awesome article. Thank you. What it all comes down to in farming is compromise and that compromise often dictated by financial/time (really also financial since time/effort=money). I’d folks keep demanding mozzarella for $4/lb it is very hard to do right by farmer and livestock. It makes me so mad when farmers get painted as the cruel bad guy. I think it would
    Help if dairy farms offered farm tours and education to the public. Now my question- if you had all the margin in the world would you keep the calves on thei heifer till weaning?

    1. Thanks for your comment. It is all financial, but separating the calves is actually more work and money, but we believe it pays off in better herd health. If the cows feed the calves, we don’t have to. Milk replacer costs more to feed than raw milk (even if you ignore labor), but we believe it’s better for our calves. And the stress to mom and baby is less if they’re separated before they develop an attachment. These are livestock, not humans, they’re not emotional and they don’t have that automatic attachment to their offspring that we have, but they do have instincts. Giving time to develop an attachment could result in more stress at weaning. Stress takes its toll on health and health problems cost money. All of the measures we take (individual housing, clean feeding equipment, etc) are essentially preventative healthcare.

  14. It took me a minute to GOOGLE what all those things were on the farms I was seeing. I ride with my husband who is a trucker. I Google ALOT. But I have been curious about those things for awhile. So, THANK YOU for your article Jennifer. I love it when someone, such as you, takes the time to write and answer questions for those of us who are just “curious”. You do ALOT of hard work raising dairy cows. I am a person who is SO addicted to her morning n evening milk. So, I really appreciate all you do to ensure that mine is healthy and nutritious. And now I KNOW anout about calf huts, or hutches. 🤗It’s true, we learn something new every day. THANKS AGAIN JENNIFER.

  15. Jennifer, all this info has been very helpful. Always good to listen to both sides of the story. How might one go about learning which dairies / brands treat their animal properly / kindly in order to support responsible farmers with one’s business? Is there some kind of national accrediting body or set of standards which a farm must meet?

    1. There actually is. Our farm and countless others in the US follow the FARM program. Our coop, DFA, helps ensure we are up to date with all of our procedures. I believe some coops have their own plans, but FARM is used by an overwhelming majority.

  16. Thank you for taking the time to educate folks. I am trying to learn to that I can make informed decisions when buying meat and dairy products. It sounds like you try very hard to take care of your cows! You mentioned that if allowed to form an attachment, mother’s could feel more stress during weaning. Do calves naturally wean if left To their own devices? If yes, does this process cause stress to the mothers or calves? If weaning is something done manually, what is the purpose and timing? Thank you again for taking the time to educate. As someone who knows nothing about farming but wants to ensure the animals that feed me are treated with respect, I really appreciate it!

    1. We have a handful of beef cows who raise their calves. Some will self wean, but others need a forced separation. The purpose for weaning in this instance is two-fold, one is to allow the mother to recover from her lactation. Often she is already carrying another calf. The other is the calf no longer needs than nutrition and needs to be getting its calories from other feed sources. At weaning beef animals start being fed for either breeding or butchering.

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