Many producers use calf hutches at calving season for very good reasons. They are espe ially important when you are calving early in inclement weather. And, with the increasing size of our herds young calves need to get away from the crowded stress of the calving yard. Even summer calving herds will use hutches for shade and shelter from summer rain storms. Unless you have lots of bush, hutches serve a valuable purpose as the only warm and dry place calves can get completely away from the adults.
Based on my experience there are a few common factors that can make your hutches more useful and less likely to transmit disease between calves.
First, they should be put out as soon as the cows start calving. Young calves will find them quickly. You might be amazed how many calves will use these warm, dry areas in a storm to get away from the stresses of weather, wild cows stepping on them or just generally being bunted around. I have seen all kinds and sizes of hutches, everything from very low-set ones that only calves can fit in, to some half to one-third the size of an open-ended pole shed with planks nailed across the front so only calves can enter. All have a place and are worth the effort to keep them maintained.
Each type has advantages and disadvantages.
The very low ones are warmer and less prone to drafts but that can leads to poor air moment and thus more transmission of disease. It is also more difficult to spot sick calves when they are tucked into the dark corners at the back of a low-lying shed. A good time to check these is early in the morning at feeding time. All the calves should be out nursing. If they’re not up feeding, check those dark corners in the sheds.
Calves are harder to catch in low hutches too. The whole front is open and while the calf has its full range of motion you are working in a cramped space.
In the taller-style hutches the calves are more accessible and their mothers can easily see them. Producers often creep a portion of these larger sheds so cows can get close to the calves at the front and a side. Before calving be sure to check the walls for any protruding screws or nails that could rip hide, or holes in the wood or tin sheeting where a calf’s leg could become trapped. A quick check beforehand could avoid a number of unnecessary injuries later on.
A good trick is to have calves access the area in only one or two locations by making the entrances narrow so only calves can get through. Depending on the size of the group you could set up two or three entrances side by side so it would look like starting gates at the horse races. Some producers use metal panels to close off the area and incorporate metal access areas which clip onto the panels. That way they are portable and the area can easily be dismantled for cleaning which is a highly important procedure especially after the calving season. Set up in this way, these controlled access areas could be closed off to confine the calves at times when you want to catch and treat them.
Remember, scouring calves should be pulled and isolated as quickly as possible so the area can be cleaned up.
Smaller portable hutches can be moved easily a few times during the season which automatically cleans them. If they can be air dried that is good and I would do a quick spray of Virkon disinfectant especially if you have had some disease issues. The best method for biosecurity is to clean them after the calving season and let them air dry and sun bake the whole year until next calving season. This should kill the most hardy bacteria or viruses. Make sure any manure packs are scraped off as these are what can harbour infectious organisms for a long time. Both fungi (ringworm) and protozoa (coccidiosis) are much more resistant and physically removing by cleaning is the only sure way to combat them.
The hutches are good places to start with small amounts of creep feed. Small amounts should be used at first to keep it fresh. Diatomaceous earth is used by some. 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 and it is a great prevention for coccidiosis. Treating this way is always a bit hit and miss as not all calves, especially the very young ones, eat much creep but it is a start. Calves are very inquisitive so products like the diatomaceous earth keep them occupied and cut down on them eating dirt or drinking stagnant water which can be negative to the health of the young calf.
The use of hutches will cut down on injuries like broken legs or bruising from being stepped on in crowded conditions. It gives 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 result — a healthier calf crop to turn out to summer pastures.