Having an appropriate set up and rearing system will help create a comfortable environment for calves that also helps maximise energy intakes and growth. Here are a few key things to consider when planning your calf shed set up and rearing systems.
It is important to ensure that there is enough ventilation so that there is a regular circulation of clean air through the sheds. This circulation reduces the risk of respiratory diseases.
Although ventilation is key, its important that calves are not exposed to draughts. Get down on the calf level – try at different times of the day and under different weather conditions. Ensure that calves remain warm and dry – if you can feel draughts at their level, this will reduce growth rates as more energy is used to keep warm and less is available for growth.
Within the pen, ensure that calves have enough space. General recommendations are for around 1.5-2.5m2 per calf – the more you can give the better. This space will allow the calves to move around freely, explore, and play, as well as providing enough space for the whole group of calves to avoid any poor weather that may come in through the open side of the shed.
New Zealand is one of the only countries that group houses calves. Our calves benefit from this as it gives them opportunities to play, bond, and learn from their peers.
An all-in all-out method results in less scours and animal health issues, compared to a system where calves are moved through each pen. Minimise movements between pens to limit spreading bugs and disease.
Separating sick calves from healthy calves can reduce the risk of disease. A sick pen can help you isolate calves requiring special attention. Moving a sick calf has the potential to spread disease further- if you have concerns about a calf’s health, separate it out as soon as possible. If sickness has spread to multiple calves in one pen, contact your vet for advice.
Ensure that staff clean and disinfect themselves and their equipment after handling sick calves, or if possible, provide a separate set of personal protective equipment (PPE) for the sick pen.
The most important thing to consider is does this bedding keep the calves warm and dry, and does it drain freely?
Calves should be reared on a soft bedding that is comfortable, dry, and clean. Research shows that calves reared on stones are colder, have reduced lying times and play less, making it less suitable than other bedding sources available.
Avoid using bedding if it is also offered as a feed source. For example, if you feed roughage of straw or hay, also using this as a bedding may mean that the calves are more inclined to nibble at the bedding, which increases risk of disease.
Access to water and feed
Clean water should be available to all calves. Even young calves will often have a drink. Without access to water, meal intake decreases and rumen development and weight gain slow. Clean water troughs regularly.
After calves drink, they like to eat. Multiple calves should be able to eat at once. Position your feed so that it is easily visible and accessible to all calves at the same time.
Toys can provide opportunities for play and decrease the likelihood of nibbling on other calves or sucking navels. We have seen some great kiwi ingenuity over the past few years of farmers providing novelty items for their calves including:
- A tennis ball in stockings hung from the roof
- A length of rope attached to the wall
- A swiss ball
- Road cone
Remember that it doesn’t have to be expensive or time consuming. If you are looking to switch the item between pens during the season, be sure to thoroughly clean it between pens.
Housing for calves is more than just calf pens and it is important to think about once calves are out in the paddock. As we predominantly calve during spring, outdoor conditions are not always optimal when we get calves outside.
Optimal calf temperature sits between 15-25°C, so the likelihood of dropping below these temperatures over spring is quite high. Once calves are in cold or wet weather, the level of energy required for maintenance and warmth increases, reducing the amount of energy available for growth. Providing shelter for the calves will help minimise the amount of time that the calves are exposed to cold or wet conditions, making it more comfortable for them and helping to increase their ability to grow.
Although outdoor shelters are ideal and provide a high level of comfort, there are some simple, yet effective things that you can do to help reduce exposure of your calves. These include using paddocks with trees or hedges or running some tin/canvas along a fence line to prevent a prevailing wind.