Calf hutches are utilized by many producers at calving season and for very good reason.
They are especially imperative if calving early in inclement weather and with the increasing size of our herds, young calves need to get away from the stress of crowding. Even summer-calving herds will make use of hutches for shade and to get out of severe rainstorms. Unless you have lots of bush, hutches serve a valuable purpose as they are the only place for calves to get totally away into a dry and warmer environment.
There are a few design strategies which will afford better utilization and fewer issues with disease transmission. This article appears before calving season to give you time to be able to consider hutches before calving begins.
Calf hutches should be put out as soon as the cows start calving. Young calves will find them quickly and in a storm, you will be amazed how many of them will utilize these warmer dry areas away from the stresses of weather, wild cows stepping on them, being bunted around, etc.
I have seen various-size hutches or sheds utilized — everything from the very low-set ones which only calves can enter to one-half to one-third of large open-ended pole sheds or in-between sheds where planks are put across so only calves can enter. All can have a place and are worth the effort to keep maintained.
Each type has their own advantages and disadvantages.
The very low ones are warmer and have fewer problems with drafts. But because of poorer air movement, disease transmission can be greater and it is more difficult to spot sick calves back in the dark corners. A good time to check is early in the morning at feeding time when all the calves should be out nursing. If they are not, check them out. Calves are harder to catch in these hutches as the whole fronts are open and you are working in a cramped space.
The higher ones provide more accessibility to the calves and their mothers can easily see them. In the larger sheds, producers often creep them so cows can get close to the calves on two sides (front and side) by only creeping a portion of the shed. Make sure and quickly check before calving for any protruding nails which could rip hide or holes in the wood or tin where legs could become entrapped. This quick check could avoid unnecessary injuries.
A good trick is to have calves access the area in only one or two locations by making the access areas narrow so only calves can get through. You could, depending on the group size, have two or three areas side by side (looking like starting gates at horse races). Some producers use metal panels to close off the area and incorporate metal access areas which clip onto the panels. That way they are portable, and the area can easily be dismantled for cleaning (which is a highly important procedure, especially after calving season, to set you up for next year).
These controlled access areas can be closed off and the calves are in a confined space if you need to catch and treat them. Remember calves with scours should be pulled out and isolated if possible. Any area of diarrhea should be cleaned up as best as possible, then disinfected and heavily bedded.
Smaller portable hutches can easily be moved a few times a calving season, and that automatically removes the contaminated bedding. It is good if they can be air-dried and I would do a quick spray of Virkon disinfectant, especially if you have had some disease issues.
The best method for biosecurity is to clean them after the calving season and let them air-dry and bake in the sun for the whole year until the next calving season. This should kill even the hardiest bacteria or viruses.
Make sure any manure packs are scraped off as these can harbour infectious organisms for a long time. Both fungi (ringworm) and protozoa (coccidiosis) are much more resistant and physically removing by cleaning is the only sure way to combat them.
Hutches are good places to start with small amounts of creep feed. Small amounts should be used at first to keep it fresh. Diatomaceous earth is used by some. If coccidiosis is a problem it can be treated through this feed as well. The feed mill in our area mixes Deccox in the creep feed, and it is a great prevention and treatment for coccidiosis.
Treating this way is always a bit hit and miss as not all calves, especially the very young ones, eat much creep feed. But it is a start. Calves are very inquisitive so products such as diatomaceous earth keep them occupied and cut down on them eating dirt or drinking stagnant water, which can be a negative for the health of the young calf.
The use of hutches will cut down on injuries such as broken legs or bruising from being stepped on in crowded conditions. It also gives calves a place of solitude. They will perform better, have more resistance to disease, and can more easily be observed and treated for sickness. I am convinced creep areas cut down on traumatic injuries from being stepped on or crushed. Keep the areas well bedded, which is easy as young calves don’t stir up the straw much.
You will be happy with the end result — a healthier calf crop to turn out to summer pastures.
With the most recent snowstorms in Alberta and the huge blizzard in Manitoba, creep areas may have saved many a calf. They are a sound investment even though they are only used a few months of the year. The number and size of creep areas are totally dependent on the number of cow-calf pairs in the group. Young calves will figure out creep areas in less than a day.