Proper Usage of Calf Hutches

Published on Thu, 01/24/2019 - 12:04pm

 Proper Usage of Calf Hutches.

 By Jaclyn Krymowski for American Dairymen Magazine.

 There are few things that illustrate the modern-day image of growing healthy dairy calves than rows of pristine white plastic hutches. Individual housing is attractive to dairy producers for its practical and scientific health-related benefits. When working with such vulnerable animals as the young calves, even the best housing systems need to be monitored and used properly. For all their benefits, hutches require their own specific needs and special attention to ensure animals are kept healthy and comfortable in all weather conditions.

Whether you see the birth of a calf as the end result of your reproductive program, or the beginning as the new cycle will start for the cow, the importance of the delivery directly affects both the mother and the newborn calf.
As I researched calving pen manufacturers, I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by the variety of units and options that are now available.  You can choose from basic design, stanchions, panel and head-gate, with or without tub, straight or winding alleyways, and gates pointing in every direction including up.   Manufacturers threw out words like versatility, ease, optimum, comfort, user-friendly, automatic, self-catch, dual split, safety, heavy duty and one even proclaimed that calving heifers would be a breeze.  Imagine that!  Where do I sign up?
It’s a good idea to remember what the purpose of the calving pen is.  First, it is a location of seclusion for the mother to relax and produce an unassisted birth- failing that a place to reduce calving stress that might impact fertility down the road, a safe zone for both the cow and the handler and a designed system that offers an efficient means of delivering a healthy live calf as simply as possible.

Don’t be caught up in the extravagance of the layouts, designs and salesperson code words when you purchase or upgrade your calving pen or pens but decide what will fit your needs and facilities plus operate efficiently and safely.
Although the selection of a specific calving pen requires research the on-going management of the process is equally if not more important.  Consider that a cow will often switch between standing and lying in the 48 hours leading up to giving birth, with the majority of changes occurring in the last 6 hours, so an important aspect of the pen is the flooring.  It should provide proper traction and stability, but also offer a comfortable surface for lying, walking or standing.  Grooved concrete, sand and rubber mats covered with thick layers of straw or sawdust are good options with some studies claiming that given the choice, cows will usually choose either concrete or sand with a thick clean layer of straw.
Cows naturally seek seclusion and isolation when giving birth so it is wise to move them into a pen one to two days in advance or at the first signs of labor.  Plywood panels or tarps can be added to pen dividers or gates to minimize distractions and give as much privacy as possible from other cows or handlers.  An unassisted birth is always the first goal.
Beyond proper flooring and seclusion, make sure that a work process of cleanliness and proper hygiene is established and followed.  Regular cleaning, drying, disinfecting and re-bedding between births are extremely important to limit exposure to harmful pathogens.  Uterine infections, “Johne’s Disease” and calf scours can easily get a foothold in your operation if strict hygiene is not practiced.  Train all calving pen personnel in the proper handling of pregnant cows and delivery assistance procedures to cut down on bacterial contamination of the uterus.  Have clean working supplies at hand including rubber gloves, antiseptics, replacement colostrum, calf pullers, chains and ropes.
The choice of a new or upgraded calving pen system is more than just choosing the correct design with a multitude of gadgets and options.  It should be simple, workable, safe and efficient for all involved.  Beyond that, the key is to properly manage the surrounding and connected components such as flooring, seclusion and hygiene to give the best odds of delivering a healthy live calf and mother.  It doesn’t matter if you consider birth the last or first step in the reproductive cycle, a well-designed and managed calving pen system will play a large part in keeping this chain of life strong and complete.