Our Organisation Search
Quick Links
Toggle: Topics

Management and housing guidelines to achieve excellent calf welfare

Management and housing guidelines to achieve excellent calf welfare

At the Teagasc Dairy Conference 2022, Dr. Emer Kennedy spoke about management and housing guidelines to achieving excellent calf welfare.


  • Irish farmers have a good reputation in terms of animal welfare it is now more important than ever that this is retained
  • Ensure adequate space allowance (1.5m2 / calf) in calf sheds
  • Make sure calf housing is fit for purpose
  • Maintain high hygiene standards – housing and equipment
  • Good colostrum management is a must for healthy

Consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about animal welfare, wanting food purchases to be produced in an ethical and sustainable manner. Presently, most consumers in Ireland believe farm animal welfare standards are high, particularly on dairy and beef farms. The Irish public are becoming more interested in the living environment of animals, requesting more information on farming practices in general, and how welfare friendly they are. The post-quota increase in stock numbers at farm level and heightened interest among consumers towards animal welfare, has created a need to ensure farm animal welfare, and particularly that of calves, is at a high standard on all farms.

In a recent Teagasc Moorepark survey, almost three quarters of farmers rated welfare on their farm as very good. Over 80% of farmers, from the study, also rated their calf husbandry skills as very good. One area which can impinge on high welfare standards is a heavy workload, such as at peak calving, where issues with labour availability and time to adequately tend to calves can arise. Peak calving also coincides with high numbers of calves on the farm and space allowance may be compromised, leading to issues associated with poor calf health.

This paper outlines key areas and practices which can be focused on this coming spring/ calving season to promote excellent calf welfare.

Watch the full presentation


A potential area for concern is the quantity of housing available for calves, particularly if calves need to be retained on farms for a longer period before they can be transported off farm. Current EU specifications require a minimum space allowance of 1.5 m2 for calves

<150 kg and under 19 weeks old. Interestingly, in the recent Teagasc Moorepark study, the majority of dairy farmers were not concerned with having to retain non-replacement calves for longer, with almost half being extremely or very prepared if this happened. This may be because, based on the recommended EU specifications, only 10% of calf houses were overcrowded.

In the survey where farmers had sufficient space for calves (both space allowance and cubic air capacity), they were more likely to have healthier calves. Surveyed farmers generally kept calves in groups of <12 calves/pen; smaller group sizes are encouraged as it is associated with reduced respiratory issues and improved welfare. Calf houses should be standalone so that airspace is not shared with older animals, as older animals tend to carry and transfer pathogens to young stock. This can threaten calf health, particularly in relation to respiratory infections.

Another key component of calf management is hygiene and maintaining clean and dry bedding areas. A slope of 1 in 20 is recommended for calf house flooring, however very few Irish farms have a sufficient floor slope. Poor drainage can cause dirty and saturated bedding, leading to increased bacterial growth, which can cause higher rates of calf illness and compromise welfare. Inadequate and infrequent cleaning, particularly of feeding equipment, is a huge issue in calf rearing; hygiene management can minimise the transmission of infectious agents among calves. For example, additional survey work carried out by Teagasc Moorepark, on Irish dairy farms, showed that the two dirtiest pieces of feeding equipment on farms were a teated bottle and stomach tubes. Colostrum is generally fed to new-born calves with this equipment; as the calf’s immune system is not developed at birth, using feeding equipment with such a high bacterial load immediately exposes them to a higher risk of infection. Below are some guidelines which can help improve calf health and welfare with regard to housing:

Housing check list

  • Space allowance of 5m2 / calf.
  • No sharing of airspace with older animals; e. keep calves in a separate house.
  • Well ventilated, but draught free
  • Solid divisions between pens – minimise disease
  • 1 in 20 slope on
  • Deep bed of clean straw to allow calves to nestle and keep

Calf management

As the calf does not have a developed immune system when born, it is essential that calving pens are spotlessly clean to minimise the risk of spreading disease and infection. Colostrum is the most important factor in calf health and vitality. Where poor colostrum management practices are used, calves are more likely to have failure of passive transfer. This leads to increased rates of illness and mortality, as well as slower growth rates and reduced productivity in the lactating herd. The following is a six point reminder to ensure excellent calf nutrition in the first week of life:

The Calf 1-6 Rule

  • First milking: calves should only be fed high quality colostrum/biestings (i.e. first milking >22% on Brix refractometer (Figure 1)).
  • Feed within two hours of birth: all calves need to be fed their first colostrum feed within 2 hours of birth, as this is when the maximum amount of antibodies can be absorbed from colostrum.
  • Feed three litres: all calves should be fed three litres of high quality
  • Four feeds of transition milk: following the first feed of colostrum the calf should get at least four more feeds of transition milk (milkings two to six).
  • Five litres of transition milk: all calves should be getting at least five litres of transition milk per day.
  • Feed six litres of high quality whole milk or milk replacer: by one week old all calves should be offered six litres of milk, either high quality (i.e. not waste) milk or milk replacer split into at least two feeds.

Testing colostrum quality using a Brix refractometer

Figure 1. Testing colostrum quality using a Brix refractometer

As well as adhering to good colostrum and transition milk management, it is important that all calves are provided with fresh water and concentrate from birth as this will help encourage rumen development. Feeding management practices should be standardised across all calves on the farm. Catering for all aspects of nutrition and feeding sufficient milk during early life not only helps promote high welfare standards, but also improves calf growth and vitality.

Read the full National Dairy Conference 2022 publication here