Back to basics calf care: Why good bedding is so important

By Lilian Schaer, Agricultural Writer

Calves spend up to 20 hours a day or 80 per cent of their time lying down. Just like cows make more milk when they spend more time laying down, research suggests that calves that spend more time lying down are better performers. It’s also a sign that they’re comfortable and content in their environment. 

Calves that experience cold temperatures can become stressed, making them more susceptible to disease and lower growth rates. That’s why clean, dry, and plentiful bedding is an important part of ensuring animal welfare and keeping calves healthy.

In the cold winter months in particular, bedding is invaluable to ensure calves are using the milk and feed they consume for growth instead of just trying to keep warm. But dry, plentiful bedding is just as important in the spring and fall, when the weather fluctuates, and overnight temperatures can still be cold.

What is the best bedding material?

Straw is the warmest bedding type, so it provides the best insulation for calves and it’s also very absorbent – both characteristics that are key to encouraging good calf health. When providing straw bedding, make sure it is at least eight centimetres (about three inches) deep and that it is clean and dry. That’s because calves will actively work to avoid wet bedding if they have the choice.

If the straw looks dry on top, but you’re not sure what’s underneath, do the kneel test. That means kneeling in the straw for 20 seconds – if your knees get wet, add another layer of bedding on top or replace it altogether. Make sure the test is done frequently.

It’s also a good idea to add smaller amounts of bedding multiple times instead of putting all the straw out at once. Not only does this help with dryness, but it also keeps the top layer from being compacted.

How much straw should I use?

Deep straw bedding has been shown to minimize three of the biggest winter calf care challenges: scours, respiratory disease, and reduced growth. How much straw is required will depend on the time of year and whether or not the animals are wearing calf coats.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison has developed a nesting score system to help guide producers in their calf bedding management:

Nesting score 1

The bedding doesn’t cover any part of a calf’s foot or leg when the animal is lying down. This score is not appropriate for winter but is observed in the summer when calves are bedded with sand or wood shavings.

Nesting score 2

The calf is nestled slightly, with the lower leg partially covered by bedding and part of the upper leg remaining visible. In winter, this score would only be appropriate if the calf is also wearing a calf jacket, which increases the nesting score by one. Without the jacket, there is not enough bedding for the calf to nest in and stay sufficiently warm.

Nesting score 3

The calf’s legs are not visible when it is lying down in the straw. The straw is deep enough to allow the calf to nest, trapping warm air around its body. The ideal depth is three to four inches (7.6 to 10 centimetres) of shavings, topped with 12 inches (30 centimetres) of straw.

Good bedding and plenty of it is the most economical way to keep calves healthy. Preventing or minimizing illness means avoiding costly treatments and other losses down the road.

For more information or to download a copy of A producer guide to evaluating nesting scores, click here.

This project was funded by the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, a five-year federal-provincial-territorial initiative.