Scott Kirby is farm manager at Harper Adams University, after being herd manager at Newcastle’s Cockle Park and an SAC consultant.
Frequently calf and youngstock accommodation relies on old buildings originally built for a different purpose. That was the case at Harper Adams, where in my time calves have variously been housed in an old mill, sheep shed, grain store and straw barn. Without exception each site had problems, and frequently ventilation issues caused respiratory problems.
But as the campus grew, buildings were progressively swallowed up and finally they ended up outside in hutches on woodchip or grass paddocks. In the hutches the main problems became cryptosporidium and coccidiosis, and once present no amount of cleaning or disinfection would clear infection from a woodchip or paddock surface.
Inadequete sites also drain staff as much time gets wasted trying to rig up temporary gates, lighting, water or ventilation, and it all diverts attention away from the effort which makes the difference between calves just surviving or thriving.
Recently we have been able to create a dedicated calf facility. The choice of site was the first challenge. We wanted a position close to the dairy unit so calves could be transferred in and out easily, but with enough separation to reduce any disease risk. We eventually settled on a small paddock which was left by the recent expansion of the pig unit, and this was sheltered on all sides by hedges and buildings which would reduce driving winds while still allowing free movement of air, and additionally be only 200 metres from the dairy.
The choice of housing became the next question. Capital was limited, so the priority was to maximise calf health and welfare at minimal cost. We had already seen some good results from hutches if we could ensure they were on uncontaminated sites. However, in choosing to go with hutches we were aware from experience not all hutches are equal. We have found quality of ventilation and temperature stability can vary significantly from one manufacturer to another.
The layout of the site was driven by orientating the hutch lines on a east-west axis to ensure the prevailing wind out of the west would be side-on to the hutches, which meant it was drawing air out of the hutches as it passed over rather than blowing directly into them.
The surface on which the hutches sit is a concrete pad with a 2% fall to provide drainage. There are four separate rows of 19 hutches and when animals move out of a row the entire row of hutches is wheeled to one side for cleaning, and the concrete pad is then scraped, steam cleaned and disinfected ready for the next batch.
The ability to completely clean this area has meant so far we have not seen any evidence of cryptosporidium or coccidiosis which haunted us in the past. To ensure this remains the case biosecurity is critical so the site has a perimiter fence and visitors are asked to adhere to a strict hygiene protocol.
The areas between the hutch pads are formed by concrete railway sleepers. Sleepers have increased considerably in price since they first became available some years ago and work out at about £7/sq m, but still a fraction of the price of laid concrete, and they have the benefit of creating free-draining permeable surfaces which can easily be removed if needed.
It is more than a year since the first calves went through the site. Over that time, mortality has averaged 3% and daily liveweight gain is a healthy 0.8kg which allows calves to be weaned at eight weeks at double their birthweights.
At weaning the calves are moved to one of eight group hutches across the yard to create groups of five. Each hutch is attached to a covered run providing 4sq m/head, and calves remain in the group hutch through to about four months of age. The run was designed and fabricated on-farm and provides a covered bedded area which can be moved to one side by a telehandler with the animals still inside. This allows the bedding to be cleared every few weeks – a process which typically takes two-three hours for all eight hutches.
Hutches require more labour than group housing or automatic feeding systems, but a well laid out site can minimise this.