Calf hutches, creep areas help prevent disease

Many producers use calf hutches during calving season and for very good reason.

They are especially important if calving early in inclement weather.

As well, the increasing size of our herds means young calves need to get away from the crowded stress.

Even producers who calve their herds in the summer will find it beneficial to use hutches for shade and severe rain storms.

Unless producers have lots of bush, hutches will be the only place where calves can totally get away into a dry and warmer environment.

There are a few design strategies that will help producers better use this tool and experience fewer issues with disease transmission.

Calf hutches should be put out as soon as the cows start calving. Young calves will find them quickly, particularly in a storm.

I have seen a variety of sizes used on farms, everything from the very low-set ones that only calves can enter to one-third of a large open-ended pole shed with planks put across to permit only calves.

All of these designs have their place and are worth the effort to keep maintained.

Each type has their own advantages and disadvantages.

The very low ones are warmer and have less problems with drafts.

However, disease transmission can be greater because of poorer air movement and it is more difficult to spot sick calves back in the dark corners.

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A good time to check is early in the morning at feeding time. All the calves should be out nursing; check them out if they are still inside.

Calves are harder to catch in these hutches because the whole fronts are open and you are working in a cramped space.

The higher hutches provide more accessibility to the calves, and their mothers can easily see them.

In the larger sheds, producers often creep a portion of the larger sheds so that cows can get close to the calves on two sides.

Check for protruding nails that could rip hides and holes in the wood or tin where legs could become entrapped.

Some producers use metal panels to close off the area and incorporate metal access areas that clip onto the panels. This means the area can easily be dismantled for cleaning, which is a highly important procedure, especially after calving season.

These controlled access areas can be closed off to allow producers to confine the calves and make it easier to catch and treat them.

Calves with scours should be pulled out and isolated if possible and any area of diarrhea cleaned up as best as possible.

The smaller portable hutches can easily be moved a few times a calving season, which automatically removes the contaminated bedding.

It’s good if they can be air dried. I would do a quick spray of virkon disinfectant, especially if you have had disease issues.

The best biosecurity method is to clean the hutches after calving season and let them air dry and sun bake the entire year until next calving season. This should kill the most hardy bacteria or viruses.

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Make sure any manure packs are scraped off because these can harbour infectious organisms for a long time.

Both fungi (ringworm) and protozoa (coccidiosis) are much more resistant, and physically removing through cleaning is the only sure way to combat them.

The hutches are good places to start creep feeding. Small amounts of feed should be used at first to keep it fresh.

Some producers use diatomaceous earth.

Creep feeding can also treat coccidiosis if it is a problem.

The feed mill in our area mixes Deccox in the creep feed, which is a great way to prevent and treat coccidiosis.

Treating this way is always a bit hit and miss because not all calves eat much creep feed, especially the very young ones. However, it is a start.

Calves are very inquisitive, so products such as the diatomaceous earth keep them occupied and prevent them from eating dirt or drinking stagnant water, which can be bad for their health.

Hutches will also reduce injuries such as broken legs and bruising by preventing them from being stepped on in crowded conditions.

They will also give calves a place of solitude, allow them to perform better, provide more resistance to disease and make it easier to observe and treat them for sickness.

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Roy Lewis works as a technical services veterinarian part time with Merck Animal Health in Alberta.