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From the ground up: Pros and cons of various calf hutch foundations

Brandon Sowder for Progressive Dairy Published on 31 October 2019
Calf hutches

Houses. Relationships. Businesses. What do all three have in common? They all are built from a solid foundation, and calf hutches are no different.

The type of hutch foundation you choose can impact labour, return on investment (ROI), calf health and more. Concrete, gravel, dirt and elevated plastic and wood systems are the most common types of calf hutch foundations. But with so many options, how do you know which is right for you?

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We evaluated the pros and cons of each option to help you make the best decision for your farm.

Return on investment

The initial cost of a hutch foundation is an important consideration, but don’t overlook the long-term return on invesment (ROI). Look for a durable, long-lasting option to reduce repair costs and improve ROI.

Concrete has the highest up-front cost for materials and site preparation. However, the ROI is significantly higher than most other hutch foundations because concrete is durable and can last more than 30 years before needing replacement or repair.

Pros and cons of calf hutch foundations

Plastic comes in a close second with a 15- to 20-year lifespan. It also has a lower up-front cost compared to concrete. Gravel is comparable to plastic’s start-up investment, but it only has a five-year lifespan.

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Wood and dirt have the lowest up-front costs but have a lifespan of only one to two years and require ongoing maintenance and repairs.

Cleaning and sanitation

Cleaning the hutch walls and feeding equipment is important, but what about cleaning the floor? An easy-to-clean hutch foundation can help keep calves healthy and reduce labour.

Plastic and concrete are the clear winners in this category. These hard surfaces stand up under power washing and let you thoroughly clean and sanitize every inch. They are quick-drying (24 to 48 hours), which allows you to turn calves faster.

Wood is porous and harbours bacteria, no matter how thoroughly you clean. Wood also splinters when power washing, increasing labour and repair costs.

The only way to clean dirt and gravel is to rotate hutches and let the area sit for seven or more days between calves. The sun will dry the area and kill bacteria, but it will take far longer than alternative options. And depending on your space availability, drying hutches for seven days might not be feasible, setting you up for potential disease spread.

Drainage

Adequate drainage helps keep calves clean, helps improve respiratory health and reduces the amount of bedding needed. Choose a foundation that raises calves off the ground and provides enough slope to drain away moisture.

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Gravel and concrete are both good options to keep calves dry. Most gravel packs have large, coarse stones at the bottom and smaller, pea gravel on top to act as a filter, keeping calves and bedding clean. Concrete pads with a 2% to 3% slope and drainage grooves are also effective.

Drainage problems are nonexistent with elevated plastic or wood hutches as raised hutches have slats for waste to fall through to keep pens dry.

Dirt causes significant drainage issues. Moisture from waste and weather has nowhere to go and collects underneath the hutch. An aggressive slope of 5% to 8% and a thick bedding pack can help improve drainage, but only to a degree.

Surface quality

Calves can fall and become injured on slippery surfaces, causing potential long-term feet and leg problems and impacting longevity in the herd.

Gravel provides a natural grip to prevent slips and protects calves’ feet and legs. Concrete and dirt are also good options for a stable, non-slip foundation. But these hard surfaces also require heavy bedding to improve calf comfort.

You might think plastic would be slippery, and it can be, but some plastic options have grips molded directly into the material to prevent falling.

Wood foundations wear over time and may become slippery and hazardous for calves and employees working in the pens.

Seasonality

Whether it’s 27 degrees or 28 below, the temperature is an important factor to consider when selecting a calf hutch foundation.

Elevated plastic and wood hutches are popular in hot, arid climates such as the West. Raised systems keep calves away from the ground, which radiates heat. Plastic has an advantage over wood since it is nonporous and does not retain moisture. A clean hutch deters annoying insects and reduces bacteria growth.

Concrete and gravel are the best options for areas with cold, snowy winters. Foundations with proper drainage and bedding keep calves warm and dry.

Dirt packs offer little benefit when it comes to weather protection since they intensify the heat and have poor drainage in winter.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all hutch foundation. Consider the pros and cons of each option carefully before deciding. Work with your local calf housing specialist to choose the right calf hutch foundation for your farm.  end mark

PHOTO: Producers should consider the pros and cons of each hutch foundation option to make the best decision for their farm. Photo courtesy of Hampel.

GRAPHIC: Graphic courtesy of Hampel.

Brandon Sowder
  • Brandon Sowder

  • Director of Sales
  • Calf-Tel
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