Back to the Basics - Calf Housing

Back to the Basics - Calf Housing

It may seem basic, and I hope it does, but the calf’s environment plays a HUGE role in the success of the pre-weaning period. A calf needs a dry, draft free area to call home. Easy access to water and feed is a must, and easy access for workers to provide individual care.



Proper ventilation is crucial for the health of the calf. Air movement is necessary for removing pathogens and humidity from the air. Still humid air allows bacteria to survive significantly longer which can result in respiratory disease.

Natural Ventilation is the preferred method of ventilation for calf facilities, as it is most cost effective. Many calf facilities include vents, curtains, or open sides to encourage natural air movement. Hutches come equipped with vent holes, or removable backs to allow for more air flow to the calf. In warmer times of the year they can also be propped up to allow air to flow in under the hutch. Natural ventilation has limitations. When the wind is still, naturally ventilated facilities are dependent upon thermal buoyancy, rise of warm air, for ventilation. Unlike older cows, calves do not generate enough heat to effectively warm the air that surrounds them to allow for thermal buoyancy to occur.

Ventilation in calf barns may be limited if solely relying on natural ventilation. It is recommended to use a positive pressure tube system(s) in addition to natural ventilation. These systems are usually sized to provide four changes of interior air per hour. The tube fan runs continuously and if designed correctly the tube system will deliver fresh air without a draft into the calf’s microenvironment.  Fresh air is distributed evenly through the barn and exits passively through the typical ridge and eave openings.



Maintaining clean bedding should be one of the highest priorities of managing the calf’s environment. Wet bedding is a breeding area for pathogens. If the bedding is wet, then the calf will also be wet and will have to allocate more energy just to keep warm.

  • Straw tends to be the most preferred bedding source. It is absorbent, and if deep enough allows for nesting to keep the calf warm in cold weather.  Calves well bedded with enough straw to nest in have been shown to have less incidence of scours, and respiratory disease.
  • Sand can be used as a bedding base to allow drainage, or as bedding alone in times of heat stress.
  • Sawdust is very absorbent and can be beneficial as a bedding base under straw. Bedding with sawdust alone is possible but take care as it is not healthy for calves or humans to inhale the sawdust. Also, fine sawdust has a way of finding a way into the navel stump.  When using sawdust be sure that it is not ground too fine and cover it to keep it dry when it is stored.



Calves need to be provided with easy access to fresh starter and water. Each should be presented in a manner that attracts the calf, and encourages early intake. In situations where the calf will need to put her head through a hole or a headlock, it may be beneficial to show the calf how to do it a few times, rather than expecting she will just teach herself.

Calves housed in a manner where employees can comfortably access them are more likely to receive individual attention in a time of need. For example; if the employee has to climb up, over, and through to enter the calf hutch, they may not be as likely to climb in and treat a calf that is sick. Or, in a snow storm, employees may spend more time giving special attention to sick calves housed under a hoop barn, rather than out in the snow.

Building a successful calf program is rooted in being brilliant at the basics. Today, take a step back and re-evaluate your calf housing. Is it functional and effective? Or is there something you change about it that will allow you to improve your calf rearing program?


Written by: Jarred Kopkey and Mariah Gull, M.S.

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