Why we need to stop focusing on “square foot per calf”

Square foot per calf has become one of the most coined terms when talking about calf housing options. It is a “standard” that has been drilled into dairy farmers and calf raisers heads by every article, seminar, and talk on calf housing that’s out there. 



While square foot per calf CAN be part of the equation, it is NOT the first thing you should be calculating when you decide to put up a calf barn. 

The first and foremost reason that you shouldn’t worry about square foot per calf is because you should be ventilating the barn by calf number, not giving them a certain number of square feet. You could have 1 calf in a barn or 100 calves in a barn, but if the ventilation isn’t right, it doesn’t matter how many calves you put in there, it’s not going to work. Allowing calves more square feet won’t fix the ventilation issue, all it’s going to do is cost you a lot of money to build a huge barn, and then it’s going to cost you even more money to treat the calves in that barn for respiratory diseases.

Another thing that people don’t always realize is that, again, it doesn’t matter how many calves you put in a pen, if the calf doesn’t have enough feeding space/time to be able to get to eat, whether that’s milk from an auto feeder, or grain in a grain feeder, they aren’t going to be able to thrive because they physically can’t get up to the feeder to eat. Even if they have 100 square feet, if there isn’t enough space at the feeding area, they aren’t going to perform.

It’s EXPENSIVE to think by square foot per calf. We custom raise heifers as you might know. If we put up a barn by the recommendations for square foot per calf, we wouldn’t be in business anymore. Guess what we do have though? A state of the art facility that allows us and the calves to be in a heated barn out of the elements of the Wisconsin winter. Guess what we didn’t do? Use the model of square foot per calf when putting up our calf barn. If we would have used the square foot per calf model, we would have been able to put 71 calves in our 240’x40’x8’ barn. Guess how many healthy calves we have in that barn right now. 315. 

You might argue, your calves are going to get sick more often from being in close contact, nope, it’s all about management. Group housing comes with certain challenges, but the number of square feet your calf has isn’t going to change how many of them get sick, they are all still in the same pen, touching the same bedding, gates, walls, feeders, and so on. Under normal conditions, your calves are going to be the same with 200 square feet or 10 square feet as long as you manage them properly.

You could argue that the calves are going to be filthy if you don’t give them enough space, nope, we just manage both our baby barn (no bedding) and our big barns (bedding) accordingly. 

You might argue that over stocking leads to pneumonia, nope, bad ventilation leads to pneumonia, not the amount of square feet a calf is allowed. 

Clean Calves + Clean Air = Healthy Calves

Looking at calf housing by square foot per calf can be wasteful in many ways. Here’s what looking at calf housing ventilation and calf barn management capabilities can do:



  1. Decrease building overhead cost per calf. 
  2. Maximize efficiency.
  3. Lower labor costs by being more efficient. 
  4. Have a tuned in, controllable ventilation system, not just letting the wind blow. 
  5. Having controlled ventilation allows you to adjust for temperature changes, humidity changes, and changes in speed and direction of the wind. 
  6. Give you the potential to heat your calf barn. If you have a huge barn, heating all of that space is not going to be cost effective.
  7. Give you the opportunity to save money on bedding costs by not having to bed a huge calf pen with 5 calves in it.

If you want to put up a calf barn, but think you won’t be able to afford it, don’t have enough land space, or don’t know how you are going to manage letting half of your calf barns sit empty when calf numbers are low, message us! We would be more than happy to help you come up with a customized calf barn plan to get you started on the right path. We want you to have healthy calves just as much as you want to have healthy calves. We are certain we can help you design something that will benefit you, your calves, your employees, and your bottom line. There is a calf barn that is best for everyone, we want to help you find yours.


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