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Tips On Building Calf Barns

Calving barns are as individual as the ranchers who build them. There are many innovations worth looking at before you build your own. The ideal barn is different for every ranch. In some situations it may be a simple shed with room for two or three cows — just the ones that need assistance. In other climates you need room for as many cows as might be calving during any 24-hour period.

Shannon Williams, Lemhi County Extension Agent (Salmon, Idaho) says barns must be easy to thoroughly clean. “If you plan on using a four-wheeler with a blade on the front, or tractor and blade, are all your doors and gates wide enough?” says Williams. “It’s handy if all your panels and gates are the same length, and can all be opened up, to run a tractor down through all the stalls.”

Design the surrounding pens so one person can easily get a cow in and out of the barn. A well-planned system of gates and alleys eliminates the need for extra people, or chasing — making it easy on the cow and the person getting her in.

If there are several people on your calving crew, have a designated place for notes about cows in the barn. This is helpful when there’s change of shift between the night calver and the next person. “Whether you post notes on each stall, or in the warming room, your system must be functional and easy to use,” says Williams.

You need good lighting in each stall, to easily see what’s going on. You also need one stall or place in the barn with a head-catch for checking or pulling a calf. It should be located for easy access from any stall. The headcatch should be designed so that if a cow goes down, you can quickly release her so she can lie flat if she needs to.

Think about safety. “Make sure that whatever you use for partitions, makes it easy for a person to exit the pen. If a cow got somebody down in the stall, there should be room to roll under the panel. I have a good friend who got knocked down and tromped in a stall, and couldn’t get out and no one found him until the next shift came. He survived, but was seriously injured,” she says. If the back wall is solid, put some rails there so a person can climb up or roll under them, to get away from an aggressive cow.

We had a similar situation when we first started calving, using an old garage shop as a barn. An aggressive cow pinned my husband against the wall, hitting him with her head. The only thing that saved him was the fact there were a lot of items still hanging on nails on the walls. He reached up and grabbed an old metal hame from a harness, and whacked the cow across the face — and she backed off. When we built our calving barn, we put board rails on all the walls, so a person could climb up to get away from a cow.

Think about barn doors and how to keep them free of ice and manure so they swing or slide freely. Snow coming off the roof may dump a big pile in front of the doors. Design the barn so you can get in and out without having to shovel snow or manure or break loose frozen piles with a bar.

Build on a well-drained area so you’ll never have flooding during a thaw or wet weather. Don’t build where groundwater may collect in the spring. Any shelter area must be high and dry.

HeatherSmithThomasrancheswithherhusband LynnnearSalmon,Idaho.Contactherat 208-756-2841


Simple designs online

Oregon State University published a Calving School Handbook that includes a simple design for a headcatch and a floor design for a calving shed, utilizing gates and easy ways to move animals in and out.

A concrete pad or well drained floor is important for the headcatch area, so it won’t become muddy or slippery and can be easily cleaned. Rough concrete gives traction and can be swept or hosed clean (if a floor drain is installed). Otherwise, a sandy floor with straw on top can provide cleanliness and cushion. In many instances you’ll want the cow lying down for pulling a calf, after you’ve corrected any malpresentation. Straw can be cleaned out and replaced after every assisted birth.

Hinged, swing-away gates can be mounted on each side of the headcatch to create a “chute” to hold the cow while you check her or begin to assist birth. Then the gates can be swung away so she can lie down. The headcatch should have straight sides opening all the way to the floor so it won’t bind the animal’s head/neck if she lies down.

For an operation that doesn’t need a large barn, a portable calving shed can be moved to whatever pasture you need it. You may not want permanent calving facilities; it’s healthier to calve on new, clean ground each year. The Agriculture Canada research station at Melfort, Saskatchewan published a design for a portable shed created with welded pipe for the frame (2.5 inch steel pipe or 2.25 inch drill stem pipe). Skids can be made from 2×8 lumber, logs, or rough-cut lumber, with 2×6’s for the uprights. The portable shed can have two or three stalls, each with a built-in pipe frame headcatch (dairy stanchion style) and crowding gate to put the cow into the head-catch. A heat lamp can be situated in the corner of each stall, if desired, behind a protective barrier so it can’t be bumped by cow or calf. Propane heaters can be used if there’s no electricity available.

Doors are two pieces. The top part of the door to each stall can be swung up and latched open in mild weather to let in sunshine. The bottom can be latched open when stalls are no longer needed for calving, allowing calves to enter for shelter. If a person wants an actual “barn,” two of these portable sheds can be situated face to face to make a small barn with an alleyway between the two sides. These sheds can be moved anywhere, to provide clean, sheltered calving stalls wherever needed.

AfullversionoftheCalvingSchool Handbookisavailableon-lineifyougoto website:, orjustGoogle calvingschoolhandbookOregonState University.Andforinstructionsonbuilding aportablecalvingshedthereisoneavailable fromtheCanadaPlanServiceonline


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