Calf Housing: The essentials for rearing healthy and happy calves

Calf Housing: The essentials for rearing healthy and happy calves

Meeting the needs of livestock is at the heart of everything a good dairy farmer does. The provision of providing healthy housing for your herd is important in maintaining the productivity and profitability of your stock.  

In this blog, we’ll take a look at some of the fundamental factors that contribute to calf housing best practice, by clearing up a few facts.


True or false? Recommended space allowance per calf is the same, regardless of age and size.

False: Both the statutory and recommended area required per calf increase with the age and size of the calf.

Healthy, happy calves rely heavily on the ability to eat, sleep and move in comfort and without conflict. In addition, studies demonstrate a direct link between overcrowded housing and lameness issues caused by the lack of freedom to lie down and rest. Read the details here >>>

Floor space allowances for group-housed calves can be found in this handy table:

Mass of calf (kg)

Approximate age (months)

Minimum (statutory) area (m2/calf)

Recommended area (m2/calf)



















The greater the number of calves in a given space, the greater the risk of spreading organisms responsible for disease. So, it’s advisable to keep numbers to fewer than 50 calves per group. In addition, 7m3 of air capacity should be provided per calf at birth, increasing to 10m3 per calf at 2 months of age.

Feed and water

True or false? There must be enough trough space to allow at least 10% of the herd to drink at any time.


It is vital that clean water is provided at all times. It’s highly unlikely that the whole herd will ever be drinking at the same time, however, there should be enough trough space for at least 10% to drink at all times.

The emphasis is very much on the word clean, as calves, particularly when dehydrated through scouring, will drink almost anything. So, access to stale/contaminated water should be prevented. Watch out in particular for contamination by other calves, vermin and flies.

When it comes to feeding, bucket fed calves require 350mm of feed space each, and auto feeder-fed calves should always have access to more than one teat per pen, to reduce the risk of bullying and overfeeding when milk is available.


True or false? Calves must have visual and tactile contact with other calves.


It’s vital that calves can see and touch each other – especially when housed in individual pens. Divisions should be perforated to allow contact between calves, with the exception of sick animals, which should be isolated as best as possible.


True or false? It’s acceptable to house multiple batches of calves in the same housing without disinfecting in between.

False: It’s essential to clean out, wash and disinfect calf housing regularly and between batches of calves.

Cleansing and disinfecting is crucial, and without it the germ-load will increase in calf buildings, and disease can easily spread from calf to calf from contamination in their environment. All organic matter should be removed between calf batches, and all pens thoroughly disinfected. Drinkers and feeders should also be able to be emptied and cleaned between batches.

Check out our #CleanForGrowth campaign for some handy resources and reference tools for housing hygiene.


True or false? Straw is the only bedding option suitable for calf housing.

False: Bedding options depend on factors including availability, cost, how much it compacts and even forage choice.

Calves spend 80% of their time lying down, so your choice of bedding is critical. First things first, calves should never lay directly on concrete, as this can become wet and slippery and can also encourage the spread of bacteria throughout the housing.

As for the options:

  • Straw and bark are very absorbent with good insulating properties. (Straw should be avoided, however, if it is also being fed as a source of fibre, as calves are more likely to consume contaminated bedding)
  • Bark and wood chips are relatively unpalatable to calves, meaning that the risk of exposure to pathogens is minimised
  • Wood shavings are suitable as long as they are untreated (if they are treated, they can be toxic if consumed)
  • Sawdust is a less suitable bedding material as it can be dustier, which can impact the calf’s respiratory system
  • Sand is a poor insulator and offers low absorbency. It also poses a risk to calves if consumed
  • Rubber mats should not be used independently of other bedding, as they can be too cold to encourage adequate resting.

From the above analysis, the suitable options for bedding are straw, hay, bark chips, or wood shavings (if untreated). Other options, such as treated wood shavings, sawdust, and sand are not suitable for use with calves.


True or false? A cow’s body temperature needs to be maintained at about 38oC.


Cows are homeothermic, meaning they maintain a stable internal body temperature, relatively independently of external influence. It is important to recognise that certain extremes can compromise this balance and, at the very least, cause the calf to have to work harder to stay warm, leading to slower growth and poor condition or, in the worst-case scenario, lead to hypothermia and death.

Young calves are particularly susceptible to low temperatures. Read our article on how to prevent cold stress in calves.


True or false? Effective ventilation reduces the risk of pneumonia.


Ventilation is an essential factor in promoting the healthy growth of young calves.

Effective ventilation will:

  • Minimise harmful micro-organisms, dust and gas.
  • Reduce the risk of pneumonia.
  • Increase calf comfort.

This will be achieved through:

  • The removal of excess heat.
  • The removal of water vapour.
  • The provision of a uniform distribution of air. (No draughts)
  • The maintenance of a correct airspeed for stock.

Housing method

True or false? Housing calves in groups is better than in individual pens.

True - in the majority of circumstances.

While the benefits of housing calves individually soon after calving are evidenced by the reduced risk of disease transfer, factors such as legal spatial requirements, higher maintenance and the impact on the calf’s mental and physical wellbeing are worthy considerations.

Studies have proven that pair or group housing of calves soon after birth can increase weight gains and intake of solid feed. Housing calves in numbers also promotes their behavioural and social development and encourages them to adapt more readily to new environments.

More help at hand

Our downloadable Farmer Guide is packed with more information on how to provide perfect housing for your calves, including lots of handy tips on identifying the danger signs, as well as solutions to any issues that may compromise the health of your herd.

Published on: 08 September 2021

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