Choosing the right calf housing

July 14, 2017

The focus of calf housing should be on shelter from the weather, clean bedding and proper management.

Numerous calf housing options are available, each having advantages and disadvantages.

But all calves should be raised in an environment that is:



well drained,

provided with sufficient bedding,

draught-free and well ventilated, and

free of projections that may cause injury.

When selecting a calf housing system, you will need to consider your climate, budget and labour constraints and individual preferences.

Calf housing does not have to be elaborate to be effective.

The focus should be on providing calves with shelter from the weather and plenty of clean bedding.

Remember, even the very best facilities will not succeed without proper management.

Within a farm, combinations of housing systems may be used for calves of different ages.

For example, a common hybrid system is individual housing for the first two to three weeks followed by group housing.

Whatever system you use, calves housed in pens must be able to turn around, lie down and fully stretch their limbs.

Individual housing

Individual housing may achieve the best disease control and allows the rearer to closely monitor each calf.

Dismountable individual pens should be designed so that partitions can be taken apart and stored when they are not needed, and the pens are easily cleaned with available equipment.

As pens form a micro-climate inside the larger housing system, it is important to consider ventilation and draughts at the calf level within the pen.

A floor area of 2sqm should be provided for each calf in individual pens to permit self-grooming and prevent overcrowding.

Calves housed in single pens should be able to see neighbouring calves, and kept in the company of other calves from three weeks of age.

Group housing

Group management is simpler than individual management but equally, it is harder to respond to individual needs.

Calves should be grouped by size and age to reduce competition and facilitate observation and management.

Small group sizes of five to 10 calves combine the advantages of group management with ease of record keeping and monitoring.

Fewer pen divisions are needed, and access for cleaning is usually easier in larger pens.

A floor area of 1.5sqm to 2sqm should be provided for each calf in group pens to permit self-grooming and prevent overcrowding.

The increased physical contact between calves increases disease risk so it is essential to have facilities for segregating or isolating sick calves.

When calves are fed in groups, care is needed to ensure that all calves, even the slowest drinkers, are consuming what they need and that fast drinkers are not consuming too much.


Tethering is considered acceptable as long as calves are provided with suitable shelter, and access to adequate water and nutrition.

The tethering method should not cause injury to the calf and all calves should be able to move around and exercise.

Open housing

Open or partially enclosed housing that provides passive cooling is the most cost-effective option in most regions.

The closed sides should protect calves from prevailing winds and rain but windows can be used to improve ventilation in good weather.

Remember to check natural ventilation at calf level.

Purpose-built housing

A purpose-built shed could include:

A storage area for feed, medications and equipment.

A hospital area for sick calves.

An area for handling calves, for example, a drafting race with crush pens or stalls.

Weighing equipment.

Computer facilities.

Electronic scanning equipment.

A loading ramp.


Temporary pens can be constructed out of steel reinforcing mesh, weld-mesh or gates or hurdles.

If outdoors, shelter can be provided using a tarpaulin to cover one corner from prevailing winds or by using large hay bales.

Temporary outdoor pens can easily be moved to a clean area of the paddock.

Existing buildings can be converted to calf sheds, but they may need modifications.

For example, haysheds can be effective calf shelters, using stacks of fodder to block the weather.

The air space of the building needs to be considered when planning stocking rates, not just floor area, otherwise respiratory disease can result.

In some buildings, ceiling height can severely limit air space.

See the Dairy Australia website for more information and advice on calf rearing.

—From Dairy Australia

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