Key considerations when designing a calf barn

Posted on April 24, 2023 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
By Noah Litherland, Ph.D., Vita Plus dairy technical specialist
Whether you are thinking about building a new youngstock facility or renovating an existing facility, the following features can increase the functionality of the barn for both calves and calf caretakers.

Barn design

  • Monoslope barns allow for ample sunlight and ventilation. Wide barns are cooler than monoslope barns, harder to ventilate, have less natural light, and are more difficult to clean and eliminate pathogens.
  • A pod concept allows for all-in-all-out pens to keep the age range of a group of calves within 14 days.
  • A cleaning room with a steam pressure washer makes it easier for staff to clean panels and capture water runoff.


  • Target six air changes per hour in the winter.
  • Ideally, provide at least 1,000 cubic feet of air space per calf (no need to be excessive). The bare minimum is 600 cubic feet per calf.
  • Avoid drafts by keeping calves away from outside walls.
  • Keep sidewalls low to allow airflow at the calf level during the summer.
  • Natural ventilation or narrow (two-row) barns may be sufficient; tunnel ventilation, cross ventilation, and/or positive pressure tubes will be needed for wider barns.
  • Insulate the roof to decrease temperature swings.
  • Consider insulating the west wall or keep calf pens 4 feet from the west wall to guard against the summer heat.
  • Split curtains open from the top down and from the middle down.

Milk room

  • Provide adequate working space for pasteurizing, mixing milk replacer, storing equipment and cleaning.
  • Choose a hot water heater with adequate capacity.
  • Install a multi-stage sink for detergent-washing and sanitizing feeding equipment.
  • Carefully plan the placement of floor drains and floor slope to increase drainage.
  • Install a heating and exhaust fan to maintain temperature and humidity within normal tolerance.
  • Include a scale area for weighing milk replacer or milk additives.
  • Plan for adequate electrical supply for specialized equipment, such as a Milk Taxi, pasteurizer, colostrum heat treatment, and/or dishwasher.
  • Have ample storage for milk feeding and watering equipment during winter to avoid freezing.
  • Designate an area for feed and milk replacer storage.
  • Determine whether you need an office area for a computer to manage calf records, communication white board, time clock, etc.
  • Install a medical cabinet for veterinary supplies, including necessary equipment and instructions for proper animal care and treatment administration.

Stalls/individual pens

  • The front of the pen is where most of the calf interactions occur. Key considerations include pail height, pail/bottle holder design, effectiveness of door latch, durability, and size and placement of head openings. The head openings should be wide enough for easy head movement to avoid ripping out ear tags, but not so wide that calves could escape. Avoid v-shaped head openings as calves can get caught if they are frightened. Headlocks/head catches are typically not needed. You may also want space on the front of the pen to record calf data, including date of birth, starter intake (circle the number of scoops), serum total protein and number of respiratory treatments.
  • An open back design allows air to flow through the pen. Pens should at least have a rear vent. Calves will spend most of their time lying in the back of the pen.
  • Solids barriers offer greater thermal support during the winter, but require greater ventilation in the summer.
  • Consider calf age at move-out when determining pen size. Larger pens that offer greater square foot of lying space are beneficial for longer nursery phases. We are seeing a trend toward a longer nursery phase of 70 to 80 days versus a traditional shorter nursery phase of 60 days.


  • Install a boot wash station at the entrance. A mat with dry powder, such as Traffic C.O.P., can be used during the winter when a freezing boot wash stations could be a safety hazard.
  • Locate the calf barn away from mature cattle and manure storage as well as busy areas of the farm, especially where dust is created from trucks on gravel roads.
  • Plan for hospital hutches outside or a hospital area inside the barn, where calves can be kept warm and rehydrate for 24 hours.

Cleaning procedure

  • Bedding removal: Avoid turning tight corners with skidsteers or bedding carts and consider wide garage doors to allow room to maneuver. Consider ceiling and garage door height requirements, especially in a monoslope barn as well as where the manure spreader can be parked.
  • Avoid fine dust particles when bedding. Bedding from the back of the hutches allows for placement of bedding where calves spend the most time. A drover alley behind hutches can be used for rear-bedding. Alternatively, face the front of hutches toward the outside walls and use the center alley for rear-bedding.
  • Locate sanitizing drains under pens, in front of pens and at strategic locations throughout the barn to empty water pails. When possible, let pens dry completely and sit empty before placing new calves.


  • LED lighting is energy-efficient.
  • Long-day lighting can increase starter intake.
  • Shade cloth can help prevent excess sun exposure, temper wind speed (especially for facilities located on a hill or in naturally windy areas) and prevent driving rain from blowing directly into barns when curtains are raised.

Other considerations

  • Bird control: Install bird netting for naturally ventilated barns and minimize roosting spots. Starwood trusses have reduced locations for roosting.
  • Water quality: Test water quality twice a year and consider applicable treatment and/or filtering systems.
  • Labor efficiency and worker ergonomics: Conveniently locate tools and access points so workers can spend less time moving around the facility and more time with calves. Consider cameras and related technologies to monitor calves.
  • Think forward: Consider what other tools or equipment you may want to adopt in the future and build accordingly. For example, consider elevating starter grain bins to accommodate a future pushcart or utility vehicle box.

Category: Bedding
Facility design
Starting Strong - Calf Care