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.
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.
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.
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.