A well designed calf facility and calf management is key to successful calf program said Dr. Kimberly Morrill, northern NY dairy calf specialist, during the second full day of Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Calf Management workshop.
Morrill, along with NWNY Dairy Specialist Dr. Jerry Bertoldo and SCNY Dairy & Field Crops Team member Betsy Hicks, led the CCE Calf Management workshop in Cincinnatus, NY, culminating with a tour of Riverside Dairy, LLC.
Morrill explained to attendees at the workshop about calf housing considerations, with ventilation being one of the top issues discussed.
“Regardless of your system, whether you are in hutches, individual pens or group pens, we need to focus on ventilation,” said Morrill. “Hutches are sometimes not very well ventilated, especially in the summer months.”
“The biggest thing we want to provide to these calves is fresh air,” she commented.
Providing fresh air will remove harmful airborne organisms, minimize dust, eliminate noxious odors, remove excess moisture and heat; all without causing a draft on the calf.
“Airflow is a challenge in hutches,” remarked Morrill.
Bertoldo and Morrill both expressed the importance of calves having enough space for their individual “bubble.”
“One of the big animal welfare issues coming down the line,” said Morrill, “is can the calf turn around? Does she have space?”
Thirty square feet of space is required for each new calf, expanding to more area as she grows.
When in grouped pens, Morrill recommends even more space.
“Calves have their little bubble,” said Morrill. “They don’t want their friends in their space, unless they are nestled down.”
She compared their situation with that of people closed in a small space together, perhaps as crowded into an elevator, where even a few minutes may be extremely uncomfortable.
“Respiration causes heat and stickiness.”
Remember that high humidity promotes bacteria growth and increases heat stress.
Stress in calves equals lower immunity and relative humidity in calf facilities should remain between 50 and 70 percent. Even with poor ventilation, outdoor temperatures between 30 and 70 degrees can create elevated relative humidity.
Whether in individual or group housing calf health is of major concern.
Morrill explained that isolating young calves prevents transmitting diseases to each other. Calf pens should be separated by a solid panel preventing nose-to-nose contact, as well as preventing drafts.
“Do not overcrowd calves!” Morrill stressed repeatedly.
Keeping air movement in balance with calf comfort was stressed, as draftiness must be avoided with neonatal calves and all calves generally, as they produce little body heat.
It is recommended to avoid housing calves on concrete floors, rubber mats or slatted floors.
Deep bedding with shavings, straw or sand is most recommended.
“I’m a big fan of sand,” Morrill commented.
Morrill described one farm that moved their calf hutches into a pole barn with curtains, providing good, natural ventilation and protection, while avoiding outside winter conditions and summer heat. “We need to worry about heat and cold stress in hutches,” Morrill remarked.
Calve hutches are extremely hot in the summer and will average temperatures over 100 degrees, when outdoor temperatures register 80 degrees.
Mechanically ventilated barns were also discussed. Although they can be beneficial, they can also have a negative effect, explained Morrill. “Generally, as systems get more complicated, costs increase and managers need to understand how the system and controllers work to manage them effectively. Properly managing fans, inlets and controllers is critical.”
Tight construction of the barn is required for mechanical ventilation — negative pressure systems.
Although it is not a new problem, controlling ammonia is another critical component of calf management. Ammonia is caused by excess moisture of urine build up.
“If you can smell ammonia in the barn, then you have too much!” Morrill emphasized, pointing out that people cannot smell ammonia until it is 15–20 parts per million.
Well-maintained, dry, clean calf facilities do not pick up ammonia on a meter.
“Once we are able to smell it, then it’s really high. These calves are at a risk of getting sick!”
Morrill says to get down on the ground at calf level, including bedding level, to be aware of the ammonia smell.
“What’s going on at the calf level? And how is the drainage?”
Drainage with calf housing is another “huge” issue topping the list of calf concerns.
“We don’t want to be in a wet or muddy pit!” remarked Morrill.
Provide feed and water away from resting places.
“The dairy industry has come a long way in understanding the many aspects and pitfalls of raising calves from birth to their entry into the milking string,” said Bertoldo. “The impact of nutrition, health experience and early growth characteristics are now in the mix when talking about the future milk production and longevity of a replacement heifer. Gone should be the days of thinking that keeping them alive and getting them bred alone means a job well done. The amount of money left on the table as a result of ‘that’s the way it has always been done’ thinking is huge.”
Bertoldo said it is difficult for many to get past the fact that money spent on calves and heifers today is an investment that takes up to two years to see a difference in return. “There are many factors — quality and amount of feedstuffs, stress levels, ventilation, exposure to diseases, attention to hygiene, vaccination programs, treatment protocols, worker training and competence, good records to make decisions by — that all play a role in what kind of heifer enters the herd and how profitable she may be.
“Since I have had a long standing interest in calf care it is quite satisfying to see these often forgotten members of the dairy cattle world get the attention and investment that is beneficial to both them and to the success of the farm.”
For more information on raising dairy calves, Morrill recommends ‘Dairy land initiative’ online.