STARTING AS YOU MEAN TO GO ON
The first three months of a calf’s life play a big role in determining their lifetime productivity and the most important period of those initial three months is the first eight weeks. During this time calves are not yet ruminating, so less heat is generated through digestion. That makes young calves highly susceptible to low temperatures – and if they are too cold, growth rates will fall and calves will become more prone to disease.
Beyond exposure to the cold, one of the biggest threats to calf welfare is the hygiene of your calf housing. In fact, AHDB states that as many as 50% of calf deaths are attributable to poor hygiene. The good news is that with some simple steps you can make sure your calves have the warmth, shelter and clean environment they need for a healthy start and productive ever after. Here are the main areas to consider as a farmer with young calves.
Standing around when it’s blowing a gale is no fun for anyone. But did you know that a draught of just 5mph can make calves feel 8-10°C colder? That’s why it’s so important to reduce exposure to the breeze, taking steps to provide comfortable shelter with effective barriers at calf level. Extra straw bales can be really useful but for a long term solution, purpose-built draft excluders are ideal.
VENTILATION AND THE STACK EFFECT
Removing draughts shouldn’t come at the expense of good ventilation in your calf housing. Smelly, stale air is about as enjoyable for cows as it is for us humans. It’s a huge disease risk too. Without ventilation, the air inside your calf housing can quickly become infiltrated with a dangerous level of pathogens and pollutants that could easily cause pneumonia and other respiratory illnesses. Fresh air ensures you, as well as your calves, can breathe easy.
You can drive natural ventilation in your calf housing thanks to the “stack effect”. This is where warm air rising from your cattle leaves through outlets to create a negative air pressure that draws in fresh air from the outside through inlets.
The efficiency of the stack effect is determined by several factors:
• Area of outlet – roughly 0.04m2 for calves, rising to over 0.1m2 for adult cattle
• Design of outlet – open-ridge designs tend to enhance the stack effect
• Area of inlet – minimum 2x outlet area, ideally 4x outlet
• Pitch of the roof – steeper pitches tend to enhance the stack effect
Note however that young calves housed in large spaces may not generate enough body heat to drive the stack effect. You may need to consider using a mechanical ventilation system or an extractor fan. Either way, it’s best to speak to a specialist if you’re unsure.
REMOVE EXCESS MOISTURE
Excess moisture and humidity is another thing to guard against. Moisture can quickly reduce the ambient air temperature, leaving your calves working harder to stay warm. Besides which harmful pathogens are much better at surviving in damp, enclosed environments. Repair leaky downpipes and broken water feeders. Avoid leaving areas soaking after cleaning and make sure all pens have good drainage.
EASY ACCESS TO THE WET STUFF
The above notwithstanding, calves still need good access to water. They will perform at their best if fresh drinking water is available from birth – and will typically drink up to two litres per day. Make sure drinkers are easy to access, easy to clean and close to drainage and remember that milk replacer serves as food, not a drink.
FRESH BEDDING – AND PLENTY OF IT…
Would you want to sleep on a damp bed when you were already cold? In terms of warmth and disease prevention, it’s crucial to keep bedding clean and dry. Deep straw bedding is ideal for winter and when used properly will provide a great deal of insulation to reduce the loss of body heat. But remember: much of the insulation value of bedding is lost if it’s wet.
ROOM TO MANOEUVRE
It’s not nice being cooped up. It also risks the development of lameness among your calves. So make sure your calves have plenty of space and try to keep standing time to a minimum. Room to moo, room to move and room to manoeuvre should be the bare minimum.
NEED A LITTLE EXTRA WARMTH?
When Jack Frost is working overtime, you may need to provide additional warmth. In fact, young calves will feel the cold as soon as the temperature dips below 15°C. Calf jackets can be used if your calves require additional warmth. Though make sure they are waterproof, breathable and machine washable. Plastic fasteners are preferable as Velcro traps dirt easily. An alternative to calf jackets is a small heater.
IS THERE ANYTHING YOU COULD DO BETTER?
Given that the lifetime productivity of a cow is so heavily influenced by their health and happiness as a calf, any steps you take to improve the conditions of your calf housing is likely to pay dividends. Be honest with yourself and take a good, objective look at your calf housing. Is there anything you could improve? If you would like a few more tips, take a look at our article on protecting calves from cold stress. It explains how you can use nutrition to keep your calves healthy, happy and warm.
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Published on: 02 March 2020
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