How to get housing right for youngstock

Having the right housing in place ensures good youngstock management doesn’t go to waste.

All too often the time and effort put into ensuring calves get the best start in life is let down by housing units that aren’t up to scratch.

However, this need not be the case, and livestock housing expert Jamie Robertson, from Aberdeen University, says with little investment, producers can boost the productivity of their youngstock housing units.

“It’s all about getting the basics right. But first you have to identify which aspects of the environment and the building are putting pressure on your system and losing you money.

“You really have to play the numbers in your head and see that your buildings may be costing you money every year. And once you understand the problem, you are automatically in a better position to know how you can come up with a solution,” he explains.

The key areas producers need to be aware of when assessing their youngstock housing units are air speed, movement and moisture. “These are the three environmental factors that can drag any system down, and understanding these is relevant when you look at any building,” adds Mr Robertson.

It is especially important to get housing in order, because a cold, damp unit will impact on those weak, lower social order animals that are left to rest in the poor areas of a housing unit.


Moisture and areas of damp act as a breeding ground for bugs, which lead to animal health problems such as pneumonia and scours.

In particular, producers need to pay attention to general drainage in their housing units, as well as where they put water troughs.

Mr Robertson says: “If you have a calf in a house with a damp floor, because the floor doesn’t drain properly and that building is going to be your housing unit for the next five to 10 years, I would recommend sorting out the floor.

“It’s a serious issue because if you get a bit of coccidia on a wet floor, it is going to spread everywhere, and if you are a dairy farmer breeding your own replacement heifers, that is going to hit you with losses of 2-4% during the lifetime of those animals.”

He recommends having a porous floor in place to allow for adequate drainage, although this will require you to do some decompaction work from time to time.

“Flooring is the key area where moisture can become a serious problem, and people need to see that changing the floor is an investment, because if it’s not working now it’s definitely not going to work until you sort it out,” he adds.

Expanding more on moisture management, Mr Robertson says: “We cannot expect the physiology of the animals and medication to work effectively if they are in a dark, damp, badly designed shed.

“The key to good moisture management is to provide adequate drainage, maintain dry bedding, and minimise water leakages from the drinking system.”


Correctly managing fresh air, in terms of air movement and speed, is the key to a successful youngstock housing unit.

“We need fresh air in our youngstock housing units, but the secret is getting it to the right places. All the same rules apply no matter what type of youngstock housing you have; it’s fresh air we are trying to manage because it is very good at killing airborne bacteria.” says Mr Robertson.

A critical aspect of fresh air management is the use of a hole in the roof to allow air to escape the building.

“The only important factor is the difference between the height in which the air comes in and the height in which the air is able to leave,” he explains.

“And when looking at your youngstock building, you should try to go steeper with the roof pitch. You, as an industry, are being sold a dummy by building sheds with really high roofs; if I was designing a calf building I would want it as low as possible – let the height be dictated by the size of machinery you have on farm.”

As a guideline for checking an existing roof vent, or installing a new one, Mr Robertson recommends a hole in the roof of 0.04sq m for every calf in the shed – a figure that rises to 0.1sq m for every growing or adult animal in a shed.

“All you need to make sure you get this right is a tape measure. And the hole in the roof doesn’t need to be sophisticated.”

And on the use of open-sided buildings, he says “fortunately” due to the British climate, farmers don’t often opt for this type of building. But for those that do, he says they are more suited for housing older, less vulnerable animals.

“The problem with a big opening in a shed is that automatically you cannot have control of gale speeds.”

To solve this issue, he recommends using some form of galebreaker, whether that be straw bales or the use of plastic holed sheeting stretched along on fence posts, as is commonly used in the horticulture industry. And for units with space boarding, he says the slats must not have a gap above an inch.

“I want protection at animal level. And fortunately we don’t like open-sided buildings. If you have a building with no hole in the roof, you are going to get an accumulation of heat and moisture – the exact environment that bugs like.

He also advocates the use of collecting areas outside sheds as a means of moving stock while pens are disinfected and dried out.

Straw chopper

Another important factor to consider with youngstock housing is the use of clean, dry bedding – something Mr Robertson says is paramount in keeping calves healthy.

And for those using a straw chopper to distribute bedding into calf housing, he says it shouldn’t be used on calves under two months old.

“Don’t expect to be able to take any type of material, chop it into small particles and throw it into the air where animals are breathing, without any effect.

“These young calves have much shallower breathing than a growing, or adult, animal, which means the small particles gather as a sediment in their lungs,” explains Mr Robertson.

Top tips for good youngstock housing

• Keep moisture to a minimum, paying close attention to water troughs, drainpipes and floor drainage

• Ensure good ventilation with a steeply sloped roof, complete with air vent of 0.04sq m an animal for young calves and 0.1sq m an animal for adult cows

• Provide clean, dry bedding and avoid the use of a straw chopper in housing for calves under two months old

• Don’t overstock pens, and try avoid grouping animals together of different ages.

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