Visit to new CAFRE Calf Housing Facilities

Date published: 13 January 2020

Recently a County Antrim Business Development Group visited the new calf rearing facilities at the CAFRE Dairy Farm.

Members of a Co Antrim Business Development Group being shown around the Calf Unit by CAFRE Technologists.

The facilities have been built to replace old and outdated calf rearing accommodation and comprises 2 buildings:

  • Calf House 1 for all calves from birth to weaning and a post weaning cubicle house
  • Calf House 2, for replacement heifer from weaning to spring turnout.


Calf House 1 in a completely open plan building with no gable or side walls to provide as much fresh air as possible to calves to minimise the transmission of disease organisms. It comprises 40 individual calf pens for baby calves to 10 days of age. After 10 days, calves are moved to one of 6 group rearing pens where they have a choice of environments. Calves can make an individual welfare choice to be in either the bedded igloo or the straw bedded pen in front of the igloo.

Many farmers may look upon this housing as too cold for calves. However, the early findings from an on-farm research study, OptiHouse, conducted by AFBI on CAFRE Business Development Group farms show no temperature differences between the inside of calf houses and the external air. This is not unexpected, as young calves generate little body heat to warm a calf house.

The igloos installed at CAFRE have been developed by a company based in the most northerly state in Germany. Weather patterns in this part of Germany are heavily influenced by both the Baltic and North Seas, with average winter low temperatures 4 to 5 degrees Celsius below those typical in Northern Ireland. Experience to date has shown that many of the calves at Greenmount can be readily found lying outside the igloo at night, even when temperatures are close to freezing.

Calf Jackets

Calves brought to the calf house from the calving pens are immediately fitted with a calf jacket to provide extra cold protection. Recent research at AFBI Hillsborough has indicated that calf skin temperature underneath jackets is 4 to 6oC higher than for calves without jackets indicating that calf jackets create a microenvironment, protecting calves in low temperature conditions.


Detailed consideration was given to floor drainage within the calf house at the design stage to minimise damp floor surfaces within the building which can raise the relative air humidity within the building. High air humidity levels helps the survival of pathogenic micro-organisms in the air and on surfaces within the calf house. Avoiding raising the air humidity level within the building contributes to a cleaner calf house environment.


As well as the 40 individual calf pens and 6 igloos, other equipment installed in the CAFRE calf house includes:

  • 2 automatic milk replacer feeder stations with 6 automatic milk replacer suckling stations, each fitted with automatic weigh scales
  • 6 automatic concentrate feed stations
  • A Suevia water circulation system prevents water freezing

There is also a Milk Taxi, colostrum storage fridge, colostrum heater with a washing machine and dryer for the calf jackets.


The overall heifer rearing target at CAFRE continues to be to rear heifers to calve at 24 months of age at a post calving weight of 85% of mature cow weight, around 550kg.  However, a growing body of recent heifer rearing research from across Europe and the USA suggests that accelerated growth rates in pre-weaning heifer calves, leads to enhanced cow longevity and production performance in 1st lactation.

Feeding protocols

Based on this research evidence, the target weight gain for CAFRE replacement heifer calves is to double their birth weight at weaning. To increase growth rates in the first 30 days, more colostrum is being harvested from the first and second milking of the cow in the milking parlour. The colostrum is stored refrigerated in the calf house, with calves are being offered more of their dam’s milk at each feed over the first 5 days than the traditional 2 litres. Once the calves are transitioned onto milk replacer and moved to the igloo pens, they can consume up to 9.0 litres of milk replacer per day. Weaning begins from day 46 on the feeder. Growth rate, milk replacer rate and intake of concentrate prior to weaning for each calf is monitored through the Foerster Technik Calf Cloud online software. If a calf is not growing adequately or eating sufficient concentrate, weaning can be delayed.

Dairy beef

Bull calves and beef cross calves are reared alongside the replacement heifer calves but can be reared on different feeding protocols Prior to moving to the igloo pens, all calves irrespective of breed and sex are treated equally especially in relation to colostrum feeding. Any calf fed inadequate colostrum is likely to have reduced immunity to disease and could therefore be a threat to the health of all calves in the calf house.

Open Day Winter 2020-21

CAFRE plans to hold calf rearing open days at Greenmount Campus in the Winter 2020-21. Ahead of this open day, some CAFRE Business Development Groups will have the opportunity to visit the calf house.

Notes to editors: 

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