Making the Old Barn New Again – Ann Hoskins, Vita Plus
Before you decide to turn that old dairy barn into a calf barn, you should do some research. An old barn may provide more warmth and protection from the elements for calves and caretakers. But consider calf flow, ventilation, sanitation, ease of feeding, and the overall health benefits and risks before you begin renovations.
One of the first things you should consider is the age of animals and the duration of time they’ll spend in the facility. Do you have the proper square footage and air space for that number of calves? What happens if the animals need to stay in the barn longer?
Start by looking at the average monthly calvings for the past year and how often they vary from the average. You can then build in flexibility to not drastically overcrowd the pens during the “big months.”
Calves require a minimum of 28 square feet per animal in individual pens and 40 square feet for autofeeders during the pre-weaned period. With today’s higher milk diets, calves excrete more liquid. Including a slope can help prevent excess fluids soaked up by the bedding, high ammonia concentrations and greater respiratory challenges. If sloping is not an option, you may cut grooves in the concrete to move fluid. Good drainage will help minimize many of the challenges facing calves.
You also need to ensure the facility has enough air space. The Dairyland Initiative recommends a minimum of 600 to 1,000 cubic feet of air space, or four air exchanges per hour in barns during the winter.
Positive pressure tubes can help move air through an old dairy barn, but they can have some challenges. If the barn has low ceilings, it can be hard to install a ventilation system that isn’t in the way of the skidloader and is far enough from the calves so they can’t chew on the tubes.
Keep in mind, ventilation is a year-round priority. Older barns tend to be more humid during the spring and fall and you will need to keep the air dry to prevent respiratory challenges. In the summer, you may need to open more doors or windows and use additional fans.
A comprehensive sanitation program is key to successfully raising calves in any facility. Don’t pressure wash or aerosolize water in your calf barn unless you have an all-in-all-out system. To effectively prevent disease transfer, it is best to remove the pen sidewalls and use a foamer to disinfect and sanitize all surfaces.
No matter what stage of growth the animals are in, you need to consider how you will feed and water the animals.
For babies, pails must be at the proper height for them to reach the bottom and eat comfortably. This means pail heights will have to be adjusted as they grow.
Make sure transition calves and older heifers can reach the feedbunk. Design the feeding space so you can easily push up feed and keep it fresh. If you witness feed flicking or feed close to the bunk not being consumed, this indicates a problem with the bunk size.
Make sure you can provide enough warm water for baby calves as well as other cleaning and feeding processes. Water amounts will vary if you feed milk replacer or pasteurized milk. Water quality also becomes a concern here. If the barn hasn’t been used in a while, you should test the water quality for bacteria levels, hardness and other mineral levels.
For older animals, appropriately sized waterers should be placed in convenient spots for the animals. If the waterers are not sized appropriately or they are placed out of reach, this could decrease water intakes and increase health challenges. Check to make sure water pressure and volume meet the needs of the animals.
Before you start renovating an old dairy barn, make a checklist of your needs and see if the facility will be able to fill those needs. If it can’t, the best solution may be to walk away and find an alternative facility. Talk with your calf support team and do your research to find the solutions that will best fit your operation. The best facility is one that allows your team to provide the best care for your future dairy herd.
About the author: Ann Hoskins is the Vita Plus calf products manager. She grew up on a dairy farm in DeForest, Wisconsin, which she says is instrumental to where she is today. “The lessons and values I gained growing up in this industry have given me the passion to stay involved and continue to learn more every day.” Hoskins earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has spent that last five years at Vita Plus, working with producers to improve performance and help them reach the goals of their calf operations.
Calf and heifer nutrition