Calf hutches are used by many producers at calving season and for very good reason. They are especially important if calving early in inclement weather. With the increasing size of our herds, young calves need to get away from the crowded stress of the herd. Even summer-calving herds will find hutches used for shade and protection from severe rainstorms. Unless you have lots of bush or well-treed areas, hutches serve a valuable purpose as it is the only place calves 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 is a good time of year to be planning hutches for the coming calving season.
Calf hutches should be put out as soon as the cows start calving. Young calves will find them quickly and you will be amazed during a storm how many will use these warmer, dry areas away from the stresses of weather, wild cows stepping on them, being bunted around and other stresses. I have seen various-sized hutches or sheds using everything from the very low set ones which only calves can enter, to modified half or one- third of large open-ended pole sheds, to something in between where planks are put across part of a shed so only calves can enter. All can have a place and are worth the effort to keep maintained.
Advantages and disadvantages
Each type has 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. It is also more difficult to spot sick calves back in the dark corners. A good time to check is early in the morning at feeding time. 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 which means you have to work 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 — create an area just for calves — so cows can get close to the calves on two sides (front and side) by only “creeping” a portion of the shed. Be sure to check before calving for any protruding nails that could rip hide or look for holes in the wood or tin where legs could become trapped. This quick check could avoid unnecessary injuries.
The smaller portable hutches can easily be moved a few times during a calving season automatically removing the contaminated bedding. If possible allow them to air dry. I would also do a quick spray of Virkon disinfectant, especially if you have had some disease issues.
Keep them clean
The best biosecurity measure for these creep areas and pens is to clean them after the calving season and let them air dry. Baking in the sun the whole year will help remove any pathogens before the next calving season. This should kill the most hardy 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. Physically removing the pathogens by cleaning is the only sure way to combat them.
The hutches are also a good place to start with small amounts of creep feed. Feed small amounts at first to keep it fresh. Diatomaceous earth is used by some producers. 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, which is a great prevention and treatment for coccidiosis. Treating this way can be a bit hit and miss since not all calves, especially the very young ones eat much creep feed, but it is a start.
The use of hutches can also cut down on injuries like broken legs or bruising from being stepped on in crowded conditions. The hutches give calves a place of solitude, they will perform better, have more resistance to disease and can more easily be observed and treated for sickness. You will be happy with the end results — a healthier calf crop to turn out to summer pastures.