Features for Better Health in Calf Barns

The search for features in calf barns that reduce pneumonia in calves has been going on for at least 15 years. Although the calf hut remains the gold standard, a number of practices and structural features of calf barns have greatly reduced the incidence of pneumonia in calf barns. Calves need adequate space. One of the things producers have tried to do is put too many calves in an area that is too small. One “cheap” calf pen that has been tried with disappointing results is to take an 8 ft. hog panel and bend it in half, creating a 90-degree angle and making pens that only give a calf 16 square foot of space. Bedding in these pens is always trampled flat and wet. The wire panels also allow drafts to blow across multiple calves and carry pneumonia organisms from calf to calf. Calves need 30 square feet of bedded space per calf. This does not include walk alleys for caretakers to tend to the calves.

It has been clearly demonstrated that a solid pen divider between calves also reduces pneumonia in calves. This prevents nose to nose contact and reduces calf to calf spread of illness. Cold drafts are also reduced. The front panel of the individual pen should be all wire mesh. The rear of the pen bottom 12 to 18 inches should be solid and the upper portion open wire mesh. This helps minimize stale air staying in the pen. It is acceptable to have every other pen divider to be wire panel. There are benefits of socialization of calves with this design.

A Nice Place to Rest

The importance of bedding is often under-estimated. Particularly in cold weather, long stem straw, which is the best bedding material, should be deep and fluffy enough for calves to nestle into and have their rear legs almost covered. This preserves body heat and when paired with solid dividers between calves, reduces drafts which can chill calves and precipitate pneumonia and scours. Calf jackets also preserve body heat in cold weather. Usually these are worn in winter weather for the first two weeks after birth.

Narrow building design also reduces pneumonia. Two rows of calves with a walk alley down the center works best. Wider barns seem to experience more pneumonia because it is more difficult to get fresh air to all calves. Multiple, smaller, all-in all-out buildings allow for cleaning and down time to dry the barn.

Natural ventilation curtain barns are common and can work well. They have the pitfall of not moving enough fresh air to calves when there is no wind or when the weather does not allow curtains to be left open. The addition of positive pressure supplemental tube ventilation has greatly reduced pneumonia in individual pens. Farms that have installed these tubes, which bring a measured amount of fresh outside air into the pens, report a reduction in pneumonia of as much as 50 to 75%. Sioux Nation Ag Center designs these systems and has seen very good results at farms that have installed them.

Beyond the scope of this article is the fact that calf health is also greatly improved when adequate quantities of milk are fed. Historically, calves were under-nourished and that resulted in more health issues.