Calves, Group Housing Considerations – Disease Pressure

Something that doesn’t get considered often enough when designing and modifying calf barns, and establishing sanitation protocols is the disease pressure of the pen or building.

Calves are especially sensitive to this disease pressure, which is why individual housing creates calves that appear “healthier” in the first couple months of life.

While there is no specific equation that spells out the disease pressure of an pen or barn, there are a few ways to determine if it is high, medium, or low.

Like anything with calves, there are a million small things that go into a puzzle like this one, but here are a few general observations we have made regarding disease pressure, and how we have mitigated those pressures to successfully raise calves in group housing from day 5 on for the last 15 years. It’s not a catch all, but at a minimum, we hope to get your wheels turning.

Old Baby Barn, retrofitted in 2007.

The first factor that can contribute to disease pressure is stocking rates. It is important to note this is NOT a square foot per calf issue, this is a ventilation and management issue that can be balanced with square foot per calf.

We stock almost every pen in our barn at 11 square feet per calf. All of them, just shy of 500#. How?! Amazing ventilation and good management. Our disease pressure from a square foot per calf point of view is high, but when you consider our management practices, commitment to sanitation and our ventilation, our disease pressure ends up being low.

Say you stock your pens this tight but have poor or inconsistent ventilation, disease pressure increases significantly. Same goes for if you were to stock the pens this way and don’t have the time and effort to manage the calf barn closely, disease pressure goes up.

If good ventilation and sound calf barn management is something that challenges you, you can decrease stocking density to decrease disease pressure, but there’s a catch, and it’s going to cost you a lot more than it would to hire a good calf manager and invest in a proper ventilation system, cost per calf will go up VERY quickly and so will your medication rates from poor ventilation.

Finding a good balance between these 3 things is challenging, but good and consistent ventilation is not up for discussion when it comes to raising healthy calves.

The second thing to consider when thinking about disease pressure is your cleaning and sanitation protocols.

Temporary housing used in 2017 while we were building our new barn! 11 square feet per calf.

We hear this story frequently, “We moved into our calf barn last spring and everything was perfect, we had very few sick calves, but after November things started to go down hill and now we are having a really hard time with our calves, but nothing has changed and we don’t know what happened!”

There are a few things that might be happening here.

The first thing to consider are your cleaning and sanitation protocols. When you had calves outside in huts, you probably had an in-depth sanitation protocols, but what you might not have considered when you move calves indoors, is how you were going to thoroughly and effectively clean the entire environment, not just the pen walls or gates.

Cleaning and sanitation challenges may include decreased drainage (compared to washing huts outside!), other calves being in close proximity with the risk of getting wet from cleaning, and not being able to get those hard to reach places like the ceiling, the walls, and other challenging or “in-between” spots in the barn, like the positive pressure tubes and space between the pens like walk ways!

At AVA Group Inc., we are FIRM believers in pressure washing. We have found (through our own data) that the “risks” of pressure washing are far outweighed by the benefits. There has been a fear spread of “atomizing” disease particles by pressure washing, but can we tell you what’s worse? Putting newborn calves in a pen that’s not thoroughly cleaned.

You also need to consider how you are going to set up your sanitation protocols. We pressure wash every pen between groups and spray each pen 2x (one after washing and one after setting up the panels) with DK-ll to make sure we have thoroughly cleans every spot in that pen for the new babies.

The next thing you need to consider is how are you managing scours in your group housed calves?

During high scour periods, and other high disease periods, disease pressure goes up significantly. In order to mitigate those risks for young calves, you need to have protocols in place to help knock back the bacteria in that pen, while there are still calves in it.

When we hit our “scour window” (typically 12-21 days), we will go into the pen and spray it down top to bottom with DK-ll at least twice. It is amazing to see how quickly the pens scours clean up just by us doing something that costs $0.10 and 5 minutes per pen. This simple protocol allows us to SAFELY spray down an area that has calves in it, while decreasing the disease load of the entire pen.

We have used DK-ll as a cheap and effective sanitation product for over 4 years with great success.

These are just a short list of things we do to help mitigate disease pressure in our calf barn, and it can be as simple or as difficult as you want to make it, but don’t sell your barn short because it stopped performing 6 months after you put it up! Consider looking into your ventilation, management, and cleaning protocols. You might have a hidden gem of a barn that just needs a keen and experienced eye to help get you headed in the right direction!

If you have a story like the one above, send us a message today! We do all things ventilation, sanitation, and calf barn management, and we are confident we can change your calf program for the better, without the cost of having to built a new barn.

Not sure what we can help you with? Check out our calf barn consulting services here.

We want to help you create the calf program of your dreams!

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