Dairy Farming

Calf Housing and General Maintenance

542 views 13th March 2018 boit 5

Housing of calves is an important aspect of calf management.  Calves are housed for several reasons, the most important being protection from adverse weather conditions and predators, avoid  internal  and external parasites and control feeding and management.

A calf pen should be constructed where possible from locally available materials. It should be constructed to:

  • allow approximately 2 m2 (1.2 X 1.5m) space per calf
  • be well drained or bedded
  • be well lighted (artificial or natural).
  • be well ventilated
  • strong to stand predator

Calves can be housed permanently indoor until weaning time when they are turned to pasture or semi-indoor where they housed only at night.

The calf house can be permanent or temporary and movable. Permanent houses should be constructed such that they are easy to clean when a new calf is introduced. Temporary houses are moved from one location to another when new calf moves in.


A calf house floor can be on ground level or raised. If at ground level, the floor should be made of easily cleanable material (e.g. concrete) and should be bedded using straw. The sides can be made of concrete or wooden. The raised pens should have a slatted floor. They are made of timber spaced at 1 inch to allow urine and faeces to fall on the ground. The house should be at least 1 foot from the ground.

Movable Calf Pen

In big dairies, calves can be housed individually or in groups. Individual housing is recommended during the first one month. When not possible then group housing can be done though there are several disadvantages including:

  • Difficulty in feeding and
  • Disease control is difficult
  • Fights among calves – decreased growth
  • Calves suckling each other which could lead to ingested hair (tend to form hair balls), blind teats and removal of disinfectant from umbilical

Calf Feeding

Raised calf pen: Suitable for newborn calves. This type of calf pen is suitable for a zero-grazing unit. It is placed inside the roofed and walled section of the unit. It may be permanent or movable.

Individual pens for calves from birth to 2 to 3 months of age are often built with an elevated slatted floor. This floor will ensure that the calf is always dry and clean.

The required minimum internal dimensions for an individual calf pen are 1200 by 800mm for a pen where the calf is kept up to two weeks of age, 1200 by l000mm where the calf is kept to 6 to 8 weeks of age and 1500 by 1 200mm where the calf is kept from 6 to 14 weeks of age. Three sides of the pens should be tight to prevent contact with other calves and to prevent draughts. Draughts through the slatted floor may be prevented by covering the floor with litter until the calf is at least one month of age.

The front of the pen should be made so that the calf can be fed milk, concentrates and water easily from buckets or a trough fixed to the outside of the pen and so that the calf can be moved out of the pen without lifting.

General management Practices Castration

Male calves are castrated to prevent unwanted mating where male and female cattle are reared together in one herd. In addition, castrated males are easier to handle and they produce better quality meat.

Castration can be done by using an elastrator ring, burdizzo or open castration using a knife.

Knife castration: is the only completely safe method to sterilize male animals and can be done at any age by a qualified veterinarian. With this method of castration there is always a danger that the wound can become infected and the necessary precautions must be taken.

Elastrator rings: The rubber ring is applied around the neck of the scrotal sack using the special instrument designed for this purpose. The testicles must be in the scrotal sack distal (away from the body of the calf) to the elastrator ring. To minimize pain when using the rubber ring method of castration, they must be applied within three days of birth.

Elastrator method of castration: A strong rubber ring is placed around the top of the testicles thus cutting off blood supply. The testicles die off slowly.

The burdizzo: This is an instrument used to cut off the blood supply to the testicles, causing cell death of the testicular tissues resulting in degeneration of the testicles. The best time to apply the burdizzo is three to four weeks after birth when the spermatic cords can be felt.

The burdizzo is applied to each spermatic cord separately (Figure) in such a way that the blood supply to the testicles is damaged, while circulation to the scrotal sack remains intact. Gangrene can set in where blood circulation to the scrotum is lost. To achieve these objectives, the burdizzo is applied to the individual spermatic cords at opposite sides of the scrotum, leaving a central area free for blood to circulate or applying the burdizzo at different levels on opposite sides of the scrotum.

Burdizo: The equipment is used to clamp and crush the top of the testicles


Horned cows are not only dangerous to people working with them, but cause a great deal of damage to hides. Dehorning also improves the animal looks.

Dehorning can be done by several methods.

Hot iron: Electric, gas or fire-heated iron is the most common in calves (4 to 6 weeks). When using this method, ensure that the killing of horn bud is effective otherwise the horn will grow again. Hot iron dehorning can be done with ease up to the age 3 months (while the dehorning iron still fits over the bud comfortably), thereafter horn growth is fairly rapid, making surgical removal necessary.

Hot iron dehorning

Surgical method: use of saw or cutting wire: In older animals, surgical procedures must be used, especially if horns have grown to a length of 2 cm or more.

The removal of larger horns causes a great deal of pain and anaesthetics should be used with dehorning and steps taken to prevent bleeding. Blood attracts flies and blow-fly strike causes serious problems in open wounds. Once horns have grown very large, removal of the horns exposes the hollows in the skull and these must be closed to prevent infection.


Identification of calves should be done immediately after birth to allow efficient and proper recording. Identification can be through various methods:


  • Hot iron – brand for a short time on the legs so as not to spoil skin. This is permanent but not common in dairy cattle.

Ear marking

  • ear notching – cut part of ear using an agreed code. This mark is permanent but exposes cow to
  • ear tattooing – difficult to read and does not work in dark
  • ear tagging – use an applicator, easy to read but


Three types of calf identification

Calf Health

Most of the common health problems experienced by calves are due to poor management. Diligent feeding management and housing is therefore essential to ensure calf health is maintained. Some of the common problems associated with management practices are diarrhoea and pneumonia

Common Diseases

Scours (diarrhoea)

Scours could be caused by nutritional disorders, viruses or bacteria. Digestive upsets leading to scours are a major cause of death in young calves. The problem can however be minimised through:

  1. Ensuring calves receive adequate colostrum within 6 hours of birth and therefore acquire some natural
  2. Feeding the correct amount of milk
  3. Early recognition, isolation and treatment of scouring calves
  4. Maintenance of hygiene and cleanliness of feeding utensils and the environment
  5. Not rearing calves continually in pens, dirt yards or small paddocks that become heavily contaminated. Paddock rotation will help prevent disease
  6. Separation of sick animals to avoid cross

Close observation of calves at feeding to identify scouring animals as soon as possible for remedial treatment will prevent dehydration and secondary disease leading to chronic ill-thrift and mortality.

  • Most scour incidents can be treated simply by:
  • Feeding water with
  • Avoiding milk for 1-2 feeds. Give fresh water, concentrates and

Antibiotics should not be used to treat scours resulting from over feeding or digestive upsets. Blood scours (mostly caused by coccidia) require veterinary treatment and management changes to improve hygiene.


One cause of pneumonia in young calves is fluids going to the lungs via the windpipe (trachea). The first feeding of colostrum can cause problems if the feeding rate is faster than swallowing rate. If colostrum is bottle fed it is important to use a nipple that matches the calf’s ability to swallow.

Greedy calves swallow large quantities of milk from the bucket, some of which may end up in the windpipe leading to pneumonia.


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