How can I make sure my calf shed is up to the task?

With spring-calving kicking off on some farms and on the horizon on others, making sure that the facilities are fit for purpose is paramount.

Whether these calves will go on to become the backbone of the herd in future years or whether they will be sold to beef farmers, it is very important that these animals get the best start in life; calves that are healthy will go on to produce more milk and thrive better in the future.

While the recent expansion has led to many new builds and houses for calves, there are many ways in which you can adapt existing housing to make it calf friendly.

The many factors which farmers should consider include: ventilation; dryness; draughts; cleanliness; and temperature. If these are adhered to, the farmer should have no problem with calves from a housing point of view.

When it comes to ventilation, fresh air needs to be circulated through the shed; however, there should not be any draughts.

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

However, farmers need to ensure that the inlets and outlets are big enough, while 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 a sufficient airflow is very important.

Image source: Teagasc

In addition to appropriate ventilation, farmers should ensure that the lying area is dry and that the floor is constructed in such a manner that it allows urine and water to flow off.

Moisture inside sheds increases humidity and aids conditions that favour disease, therefore making changes to the slope of the floors are worthwhile; any leaking down pipes or water troughs should also be maintained.

The floors can be sloped to a channel, which will catch any run-off and keep the straw bed dry. These channels may be piped to a tank. One way of identifying a moisture problem is by kneeling on the straw to see how wet or dry the bedding actually is.

Farmers can reduce moisture by not washing floors or buckets inside the shed when calves are being housed and only washing pens when the shed is empty is advisable.

However, when the sheds are empty, deep cleaning with power washers and disinfectants should be carried out.

Furthermore, when it comes to temperature, straw bedding is an effective way of protecting the calf from the cold. However, due to the scarcity of straw this year, alternative bedding options will be explored by farmers.

Calf jackets can be used, but farmers should wash these thoroughly to prevent the possibility of passing disease from calf-to-calf.

Moreover, calves should not be housed with older animals and the shed should be located upwind from any other housing facilities. Keeping the number of calves/pens smaller will also allow the calves to be easier managed and will lead to better performance.

A dedicated area should be used for washing equipment and – if possible – this would be located outside the calf shed or in another shed.