No matter what season you calve, it’s helpful to have a pen or shelter where you can assist a cow or heifer if necessary. Even if you calve in late spring, trying to deliver a calf in a windstorm or pouring rain can be miserable if you don’t have a roof and a windbreak. And if calving in cold weather, a good calving barn is essential.
Any calving shed or barn, whether fancy or basic, should be designed for easy cleaning. Doorways, alleys, pens, gates should all be large enough to get a tractor through for cleaning, so you won’t be stuck with having to clean them out with a wheelbarrow. Unless a barn is easy to clean, there will be times it will not be cleaned, and this can lead to problems. You also need large enough stalls and moveable gates/panels to give extra room if needed, for working with a cow.
Keep barn stalls clean. This may mean putting new bedding in for each calving cow. Straw, sawdust, wood chips or shavings can be used, depending on what’s available in your area. “The best way to use chips or shavings is to put them in first, and straw on top of them,” says Ron Skinner, DVM, a veterinarian near Hall, Montana, who raises Angus and Saler seedstock. The moisture goes down through the straw and into the chips and this keeps the top layer dry. Then all you have to do is pitch the manure out, without having to clean out the whole stall.
“In a barn with a dirt floor or concrete, the stalls need to be cleaned after every cow because everything is wet,” he says. “But if you put chips down first, and straw on top of it, the straw stays drier and cleaner and you can use it eight to 10 times before you have to take all the straw out again — if you just throw the cow pies out between cows. In our barn we put about five inches of chips on the floor and then add a layer of about five or six inches of straw. Even with a cow in there, the next morning it will be dry on top and you can throw out the manure and use it again.” This saves time, and straw.
“We just throw the cow pies into the alleyway and go through there every few days with the tractor and loader and push or drag it out. It doesn’t take me very long to clean the barn, that way,” says Skinner. It saves a huge amount of labour.
Sometimes after it’s been cold and everything is frozen (and bedding stays dry because the moisture and manure freeze), and you have a lot of cows in the barn, and then the weather warms up, those stalls get wet again very quickly. “Usually, with an underlayer of chips, it’s only the centre of the stall that gets wet, but sometimes I only change those chips a couple times during calving season,” he says. “Usually the moisture is in the centre and I can clean that part and leaving the bedding all around the edges; those chips are still dry. Most days I just take the cow pies off the top with a barn fork, and when I do clean it out it’s easy to clean because there’s not very much straw and it’s not heavy or wet. When it starts getting wet in the middle you just pitch out or drag out the center with a tractor. It’s a great way to keep barn pens clean and dry.”
Calf hutches are important. During windy or wet weather they keep calves from being chilled and stressed, and thus help prevent illness. Shelters can be made from just about any material — inexpensive or expensive — but it’s wise to make them portable, for easy movement to new locations. Skinner says his calf hutches probably took more time to build than wooden structures, but they will last forever. He made the skids and crosspieces for his hutches from old six-inch well casing obtained from a salvage business.
“We can push or drag these anywhere and they won’t break,” he says. “The well casing is stiff enough to drag or push over frozen cow manure, and the top of the building won’t flex. We put up vertical metal pieces and framed it out with angle iron, then bolted boards to that, and put a metal roof on it. The hutches my dad had — back in the 1960’s — we kept breaking the 6X6 boards by dragging them around.”
His calf hutches don’t have floors, so there is no buildup of contamination inside the shed. If it starts to get dirty, he pushes the shelter with his tractor and loader to a new location, when he’s feeding cows. “Whatever you use for building calf sheds, it must be heavy and durable enough that you can drag or shove them around without breaking them,” says Skinner. “The tractor I handle round bales with has two forks on the loader and you can just slide those under the end of the hutch and pick it up a little and slide it in any direction. You can also roll a little straw off a round bale feeder right into it, for new bedding.”
The most important thing for any calf shelter is keeping them clean. Since the calves congregate there, you don’t want scours spreading through the group. “If you move the sheds often, you can leave the mess behind,” he says. “In some instances, in some health situations, you may need to close up those hutches so calves can’t get in them, if they become more of a problem than a help. They can become funeral homes instead of shelters.”
The important thing is to keep cattle healthy, with plenty of room — to minimize disease build up and contamination — and a good vaccination program. Also make sure newborn calves get off to a good start. “The first 48 hours is crucial,” he says. “Calves need a dry place to lie down. Once they are dry and have nursed, they can handle a lot of cold weather if you can keep them out of the wind.”
Heather Smith Thomas ranches with her husband Lynn near Salmon, Idaho. And is author of several books including -Essential Guide to Calving: Giving Your Beef or Dairy Herd a Healthy Start. Contact her at 208-756-2841