A survey by RABDF last year found '63% of farmers struggled to recruit' and 'nearly 1/3 considered leaving the industry due to a lack of dairy labour'.
Birth to weaning is undoubtedly the most labour intensive period of calf rearing. Calf housing options can have an impact on labour intensity, generally with calves housed individually or in pairs taking more time and more staff to manage when compared to group housing.
Some of the most common housing options include:
Calf buildings with pens/groups
Individual calf hutches offer many benefits in terms of calf health and growth, however, rearing calves individually has been shown to have significant impact on their social development. With the current labour crisis in dairy farming, we may also find their drain on labour and time may result in issues with delivering optimal care and attention.
When group housing calves the groups should not be larger than 8-10 calves and ages should be kept within 2 weeks. Grouped housing offers a reduction in calf:staff ratio, however makes the risk of disease transmission higher.
Group sizes are somewhat dictated by herd size and calving patterns. For example, group housing in igloos would be suitable for all year round calving herds larger than 200 cows, as an average of 4 cows would need to calve each week to keep ages <2 weeks apart. In reality this age difference may prove to be a stretch, so the farm could look at housing calves in groups of 6. Herds calving fewer than 4 calves per week are likely to see an increased rate of disease if housing calves in groups of >6 due to increased age gaps.
To improve pen hygiene and thoroughly disinfect housing igloos are a favourable calf housing alternative to hutches. Standing on concrete pads with adequate drainage allows calves to be stocked in an 'all in all out' system. Once weaned the igloos are thoroughly cleaned and disinfected and can be moved to a fresh area of concrete. Another benefit of igloos is the increased ventilation which can result in subsequent reduced pneumonia rates when compared to calf buildings. Calves do not generate enough heat to create a stack effect powerful enough to move air in most calf buildings and so positive ventilation is often required.
Calf housing targets
Regardless of the housing system, each should aim for:
<75% relative humidity
Windspeed of 0.2-0.5m/s
The average temperature in the UK is 9C, and calf housing is on average 1C warmer than the outside temperature, meaning for much of the year calves under 3 weeks old will be using additional energy to stay warm. Calves will require additional feed, bedding, calf jackets and/or heaters maintain growth rates in colder temperatures.
Treating sick calves is time consuming, putting a strain on already busy days. Maintaining good calf health is paramount.
Key areas to address when maximising calf health:
Cleaning and disinfection of equipment - is your disinfectant effective against Cryptosporidium?
Sufficient bedding and drainage to prevent ammonia build up
Adequate nutrition for maintenance, growth and warmth
Farms looking to improve or change their current calf housing in the coming few years should consider the impact of reduced labour when designing their optimal system.
Costa JHC, von Keyserlingk MAG, Weary DM. Invited review: Effects of group housing of dairy calves on behavior, cognition, performance, and health. J Dairy Sci [Internet]. 2016;99(4):2453-67. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.3168/jds.2015-10144
Wójcik, J., Pilarczyk, R., Bilska, A., Weiher, O., & Sanftleben, P. (2013). Performance and Health of Group-Housed Calves Kept in Igloo Calf Hutches and Calf Barn. Pakistan Veterinary Journal, 33(2).