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Designing barns that keep your Heifers healthy
Charlene M. Shupp Espenshade Special Sections Editor Charlene Shupp Espenshade

A heifer barn can determine the quality of the cow as she heads to the milking herd.

Management of heifers, access to feed and water, air quality and comfort are just a few of the considerations when designing a heifer facility.

Dan McFarland and John Tyson, agricultural engineers for Penn State Extension, discussed barn design during a recent Technology Tuesday webinar.

“The goal of these facilities are to produce an environment and management opportunity to raise healthy, well-grown dairy replacements that are ready to enter the milking herd between 22 and 24 months of age,” McFarland said.

Heifer housing should follow the same principles as dairy cow housing. The heifers need a clean, dry and comfortable resting area, confident footing, protection from weather extremes, access to feed and water, draft protection and excellent air quality.

Heifers should be grouped by age and size. Transition calves should be 5 to 6 months old before heading into group housing.

If calves have not been housed in groups before, the groups should be small so the transition calves can adapt.

McFarland recommends bedded packs for these transition calves. They need deep bedding to stay warm, especially during the winter months.

For older heifers, consider group spacing, reproduction and health management, and ration needs.

McFarland described different housing systems. Barns with bedded pack pens allow stocking variability and will handle short-term overcrowding. However, a lot of bedding is required to maintain a dry resting area.

Spacing should increase as the heifers grow. “The thing to keep in mind is wherever the animals feed … we do not consider it a resting area,” he said.

Freestalls make efficient use of space, McFarland said, but they are not recommended for transition calves.

“They don’t adapt well to that and, unless heavily bedded, (freestalls) do not provide good heat preservation,” he said.

Unlike bedded pack pens, stall size and number will determine how many heifers can be grouped together.

“An important thing to remember is that the stalls in a group should reflect the heifers leaving a group” to accommodate their larger size, McFarland said. The other elements in the area should be adjusted for the smaller animals.

All barn systems have to provide easy access to feed. Heifers under a year old need at least 18 inches of feeder per animal. Yearlings will need about 2 feet.

Transition calves work better with slant bar feeders. Headlocks also provide easy restraint of the group for health management. For the other groups, “Use the appropriate headlocks for the heifer size,” McFarland said.

Heifers might not get the same attention as cows, but they still need regular access to feed. “We always want to keep feed in reach,” McFarland said.

Heifers can push feed out as they eat. Feed push-up is needed for a flat bunk. Some farmers use a J-bunk to help keep feed in front of the heifers.

Waters need to be installed at the right height for each group. McFarland recommends a waterer that is easy to clean and frost free.

He suggests the waterer be installed at the intersection of the feeding and bedding areas. The waterer should be fenced off so the heifers can drink only from the feeding area to keep the bedded pack dry.

Textured floor surfaces with grooves can provide confident footing for heifers. McFarland discourages slotted floors for heifers 6 months and younger.

Tyson said the idea of ventilation is to move fresh air into a barn to improve air quality. The air inside the barn should equal what is outside.

Most heifer barns use natural ventilation to manage air quality, though it’s ideal to maximize airflow and sun exposure.

“But what I have often said is topography wins,” Tyson said. The site, rather than ideals, determine the placement of a new barn.

Farmers should understand local wind patterns and consider how the sun will hit the barn during different seasons to best manage heifer comfort.

The design, especially with younger heifers, will need to protect the animals from drafts or ventilation swirls, Tyson said.

The barn also has to adjust for seasonal weather conditions. He encourages automated controls and sidewall curtains to provide a quick response to changing weather conditions.

“We can’t change the direction of the wind on any given farm, but we can adjust those openings and the barn’s orientation to take advantage of what Mother Nature is giving us,” Tyson said.

Farmers and farmworkers should have easy access to the pens. Cow pens can have pass throughs, or slots where farmers can easily walk but cows cannot. Heifer barns will require a gated access.

McFarland has also included an alleyway at the back of the pens in his plan designs for farmers to get easy access to individual pens.

Many farmers will skip the feature to save on building costs, but several have expressed regrets for failing to include the feature, he said.

“It is also a way to keep (the heifers) away from the curtain” to prevent them from chewing on it, McFarland said.

Headlocks work well for restraining heifers, but a farmer might want to consider catch pens in the bedded packs or a dedicated space in the barn with a work chute to sort animals for health checks.

When building a new barn, other elements to consider include lighting, manure handling and storage, footbaths, and cleaning.

Penn State Extension has heifer facility designs that can be reviewed for ideas when considering a new heifer facility, McFarland said.

 

Source: Lancaster Farming


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