Are calf jackets a real alternative to straw bedding?
Jackets for calves may become popular this winter as farmers plan to feed straw and look at providing alternative bedding solutions.
There are viable alternatives to the use of straw as bedding. Teagasc recommends, however, that calves under eight weeks of age get priority for any straw that is available since straw traps faeces and urine so pens can be readily cleaned out and disinfected.
Other bedding materials may not provide adequate warmth for young calves.
Bedding materials include woodchip, wood shavings, sawdust and rushes. There is scope to use woodchip for indoor bedding although there is little experience of this in Ireland.
Farmers have successfully used these materials in combination with straw and they have also mixed woodchip with peat to extend the bedding interval. Peat should only be used as a short-term solution where there is no viable alternative.
The recommendation with woodchip is to initially put a 10cm layer in place and then to top up as required, which is generally every seven to 10 days, but this is very dependent on the diet.
Woodchip, in general, is very suitable as bedding, animals stay clean and there is little dust. A 100m3 load weighing approximately 20 to 25 tonne will cost approximately €1,230 delivered including VAT.
Calf jackets and slats
Rearing calves on plastic or hardwood slats while keeping young calves warm by using calf jackets may be a viable option for some farmers.
A calf jacket will cost about €30, which is reasonable considering it takes one round bale of straw to rear a calf.
Each jacket could rear about three calves per year. It is necessary to separate the calf from it's faeces and urine so slats are the preferred complementary housing option.
Research would indicate no scientific benefit to using calf jackets, although farmer feedback would suggest 'a nice shine' after removal of the jackets on calves for sale.
Calf jackets need to be washable.
With slats, it is important that the fall in the floor is adequate to drain away urine to avoid problems with ammonia gas. Good ventilation and regular cleaning are critical with this system.
Calves reared on slats are also more prone to draughts. There are many Irish companies making plastic slats including JFC, Durapak and Easyfix. They are not cheap but they will last for many years.
Timber slats made from hardwood may also be constructed (20-28mm gaps and 50-63mm ribs - see Department of Agriculture Specification S124).
Farmers have successfully used rubber mats in calving pens instead of straw. The 'Bama' mat from Mayo Mats has been made specifically for this purpose with a good grip to facilitate the baby calf to stand.
Likewise the 'Kraiburg' mat is available from Condon Engineering.
A high standard of management is needed for all alternatives to straw bedding.
Tom Fallon is a farm buildings and infrastructure specialist
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