New housing developments for calves

Date published: 07 June 2017


To achieve high levels of lifetime performance, calf nutrition, health and environment must be optimal for the young animal as indicated in the Lifetime Performance triangle. Failures in any one aspect will have detrimental impacts on lifetime performance.

Calf rearing veranda erected at CAFRE in February 2017

Replacement heifers are reared for the CAFRE dairy herd with the aim of producing 40,000 litres of milk profitably over their lifetime, while minimising environmental emissions.

CAFRE have observed the benefits in increased productivity and improved cow health from high quality housing for the dairy herd. Staff at the College are now planning new calf rearing accommodation to complete the modernisation of the dairy herd housing facilities.

New calf housing requirements

To optimise calf performance and minimise the incidence and spread of disease, key design issues the new calf housing must address include:

  • Minimising the impact of draughts
  • Good drainage to minimise humidity levels
  • Providing an appropriate stocking density
  • Use of materials with easily cleaned surfaces
  • Creating a micro-climate providing an adequate temperature for the calf

Experiences of alternative housing systems

The calf igloo concept is based on the premise that calves will seek shelter from cold and draughts when given the choice to do so. Over the past six months, a calf igloo and veranda system has been evaluated at Greenmount Campus. Up to 14 mainly beef cross Holstein calves have been reared in the igloo and veranda at any given time between early February and late May 2017.

Temperature and humidity have been monitored by sensors and incidence of disease, straw use and observations of calf behaviour have been recorded. From mid February to mid March temperatures inside the igloo were 2.3 degrees warmer than the covered exercise area and 0.8 degrees warmer than the current indoor housing. Humidity was 3.5% lower in the igloo than the exercise area and 2.9% lower than the current indoor housing.

Table 1. Temperature and humidity levels measured in calf housing February to March 2017

Mean temperature


Mean humidity


Igloo 10.2 83.8
Igloo covered exercise area 7.9 87.4
Indoor housing 9.4 86.8

The differences in temperature and humidity levels recorded inside the calf igloo compared to those recorded in the covered exercise area would suggest that natural stack effect ventilation is occurring within the igloo with the calves. This observation has been backed up by the use of smoke pellets on a number of occasions, clearly showing smoke rising through the ventilation outlets on top of the igloo.

Calf health, performance and behaviour

Mean liveweight gain from birth to weaning of calves reared in the igloo was 0.71 kg per day, with calves weaned at 58 days on average. No incidence of pneumonia was recorded against calves reared in the igloo. During cold, wet and windy days, calves appeared to prefer to snuggle together in deep straw bedding in the igloo. On calmer days, even with low temperatures, some calves appeared to be happy to lie in the bedded exercise area outside the igloo.

Future plans

Based on the experience of rearing calves in igloos and from a number of visits to farms using similar systems in the UK and in Europe, CAFRE plan to build new calf rearing accommodation based on the igloo concept illustrated in the floor plan. The detailed plans aim to address all the key design issues listed above.

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