Optimal Facilities for Older Heifers – Ann Hoskins, Vita Plus

Posted on December 22, 2014 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
By Ann Hoskins, Vita Plus calf products coordinator
Designing animal facilities can be challenging no matter the age of the animal. Here are a few key areas to focus on and suggestions to keep in mind as you design your facilities.

Ventilation can make or break the system quickly for animals of any age.  Everything from new barns to retrofitted facilities should be evaluated for proper ventilation.

Summer and winter ventilation can vary greatly. In the winter, you want four air exchanges per hour, whereas you’d like to see 15 exchanges per hour in the summer months.

You also want fresh air to reach the animals without drafting. This is referred to as still air speed and should occur about 3 to 4 feet above the animal.  Work with a trained consultant to evaluate your ventilation systems.

Signs that your ventilation needs tweaking include:

  • High rate of calf respiratory treatments
  • Signs of subclinical respiratory disease, such as labored breathing, rough hair coats and weepy eyes
  • Excessive dust or extreme air movement when standing in the barn
  • Lack of air quality

Feeding areas
Evaluate the feeding area for bunk space and curb height and width.  Determine whether the feedbunk should be offset from the standing area for ease of consumption.

This is not a one-size-fits-all area. You must look at the ages and sizes of the animals. Decide what type of feeding system you need and whether it is age appropriate. Most transition animals will do better with slant bars or a feeding rail. Do not introduce headlocks until the animals have adjusted to the new system.

Signs that your feeding areas need adjustments are:

  • Low feed intakes
  • Inconsistent eating patterns in feed
  • Animals flicking feed
  • Animals stretching or kneeling when eating
  • Rub marks on either upper or lower necks
  • Animals’ heads getting stuck

Some solutions many include installing raised bunks to offset the feeding area, adding feed space, changing the type of bunk, pushing up feed more often or redesigning the feeding area.

Like feed areas, waterers need to be sized properly. Make sure you have the right capacity for the number animals.

Signs your waterers are not sized properly are:

  • Crowding at waterers
  • Low dry feed intakes
  • Calves are noticeably uncomfortable when drinking
  • Signs of dehydration

Locate waterers on the fence line without a lot of obstruction around them. Look at the height of the water along with the height of the platform. Can the animal easily reach the water without having to stretch?

Be sure you can easily clean around and inside the waterers. Where will the water drain? The scrape alley?  Bed pack?  Will you need to “bucket out” for cleaning?  Is it in an area where ice will build up in the winter, making it more difficult for calves to reach the water?  Do you have enough water pressure to keep the tanks filled?  Are the heaters properly installed to prevent freezing?

Resting area
Evaluate the number of animals and corresponding resting space. In some cases, just a couple extra animals can break the system. Click here for guidelines on heifer housing.

If you have bed packs, consider using an organic base for better drainage. If you use a concrete base, the pen needs a slope to allow fluids to move away from the bedding area. However, too much slope can be hard on feet and legs.  Consider a scrape alley with your bed packs as most of the fluids will congregate in that area for ease of cleaning.  My recommendation is to use a bed pack system for your first couple transition pens and then introduce heifers to freestalls.

With freestalls, make sure the length, width and curb height are appropriate for the size of animal. Look at your options for the freestall base.  Does it offer maximum comfort for the animal? Some will also use bedding in the freestall depending on the base. Use an absorbent material that will help to keep the areas dry and clean.

Signs your resting area has challenges are:

  • Dirty animals due to lack of bedding or overstocking
  • Increased respiratory scores

If you are looking to build or retrofit a facility, work with your consultants to optimize all of these areas. I also suggest visiting other facilities to find what you like and what you don’t. If you currently experience any of these challenges, talk to your consultants to help you troubleshoot and pinpoint opportunities for improvement.

Category: Facility design
Starting Strong - Calf Care