Good pen/barn/shed design and housing management help keep health problems to a minimum and help your calves thrive. An ideal calf pen is one where you would be comfortable hanging out, lying down, and also warm enough in your underwear.
Space – 1.5m square minimum per calf for adequate space. Overcrowding leads to increased environmental contamination with pathogens, poorer bedding conditions, and increased pathogen transfer between calves. 10 calves per pen at least in the initial few weeks is considered a maximum. Some farming systems call for individual pens to prevent contagious pathogen transfer.
Ventilation – housing needs to have adequate ventilation to provide good air quality, lower the humidity level and to carry away air pollutants such as ammonia from waste. No calf wants to be inhaling its pen-mates urine gases and potential nasty pathogens.
Draft free – ventilation is good above calf height for the above reasons but drafts around calf level are to be avoided as these lower the effective temperature and chill the calf. Different levels of draft prevention requirements will vary according to climate in your area but always ensure there is sufficient draft-free warm space for calves to rest.
Pen separation – solid, easily cleaned partitions between pens are excellent for reducing contamination and pathogen transfer. One rotoviral scour contains huge numbers of virus particles ready to infect 100s of other calves -we don’t want those flying between pens. If the pens are separated by more than 1metre e.g. a walking path between, this is generally considered safe. Partition heights should be high enough so calves cannot sniff over the top. The best material is smooth and non-porous so you can thoroughly decontaminate the surface.
Bedding – bedding should be kept to a condition where you are happy to lie in it yourself, in your underwear. Whichever you choose, ask yourself: would you lie in it? Are you comfortable? Warm? Clean? Dry?
Drainage – should be set up so there are no wet areas in the pens.
Open vs enclosed – open pens should face the sun i.e. north facing in the southern hemisphere and south facing in the north. Open has great natural ventilation but enclosed pens are warmer. Some pens designs are easily used for other purposes when there is a non-calving period to the year. Different pros and cons for different situations.
Water troughs – clean water needs to be readily available – it is surprising how much water calves drink. Water intake also encourages meal intake. Leaky troughs are common problems and is one of the reasons trough should be positioned at the front of a pen or where wet bedding can be easily replaced. Ensure the trough is stable as calves like to run around and tip over unstable troughs delightfully wetting the bed even further.
Meal/concentrate feeders – ensure plenty of easy access so each calf in the pen can be at the trough at the same time with 30cm of head space. This access space ensures the shy calves have their fair chance when they all start heading to the meal after milk feeds, encouraging more uptake and more even uptake.
All-in all-out – set up your system so there is minimal movement between pens. The all-in all-out means that calf 11 for example, enters pen number two, along with its pen mates 12 – 20 until the whole group is ready to leave the pen e.g. when old enough to go outside. At which point the pen will be thoroughly cleaned out before the next group. Of course there will be exceptions e.g. a slow suckler may need to be moved and penned with other slow drinkers and a sick calf may be removed. Calves harbouring contagious infections are often spreading the pathogen for sometimes days prior to showing illness so moving a seemingly healthy calf from pen to pen increases pathogen transfer risk.
Sick calf pen – maintain a separate sick calf pen away from other calves with separate equipment and preferably with a dedicated carer. Also a separated pen for bobbies. Many farms make use of a good foot bath (or more appropriately a gumboot bath) between sick and healthy calves.
Limit personnel – do not let just anyone into your calf pens, ensure they are clean e.g. gumboots prior to entry. Of particular note is bobby calf pick-ups, avoid the loaders going anywhere near your healthy calf pens. The trucks, drivers and loaders can easily be carrying pathogens from one farm to another.
Vermin and other animals – vermin, pigs, dogs etc. have all been known to be the cause of disease transfer. Keep vermin under control and do not house pigs near the calves – both spread nasties. Yes, it is terribly amusing when the dogs play with the calves but keep in mind this is not ideal as far as optimum health conditions, most of the time you will get away with this one.