I’ll never forget milking cows in a tiestall barn, feeding cows with wheelbarrows and feed carts on my family’s dairy farm in northwest Minnesota. Many producers have moved out of these older barns and into freestall barns to expand the herd or move to a new milking system while enhancing cow comfort and labor efficiency.
Abandoned tiestall dairy barns can look very attractive for calves, especially this time of year. They are warmer than hutches and protect calves and caretakers from the elements. Before you renovate, consider these key factors to provide a good environment for your calves.
Stocking density in old dairy barns is often the biggest challenge. Calves require a minimum of 28 square feet per animal in the first 60 days. Evaluate the ebb and flow of past and projected calvings and determine how often the monthly calvings vary from the average. This will determine if the building space is adequate to accommodate the heavier calving pressures.
Consider sloping your pens so leachate can drain into a removal system. If the barn cleaner is functional, this can be a good way to remove wet or soiled bedding. When sloping is not an option, you may cut grooves in the concrete to move fluid. More fluid means more ammonia accumulation in the bedding and a greater risk for respiratory challenges.  
For some tiestall or stanchion barns, the structure can be a challenge to getting 28 square feet per calf. If the structure dictates smaller pens, it may reduce the capacity of the barn. You will likely need to clean pens more frequently to reduce ammonia at the calf level. Some farms have chosen to gut the internal components in these barns, providing more flexibility for the layout.  
For calf health, ventilation and the factors that impact it should be carefully considered before placing young calves in an old dairy barn. These barns tend to have very little opportunity for natural ventilation and rely on tunnel ventilation or a similar negative-pressure system. You may be able to use portions of existing mechanical ventilation systems as a savings, yet still effectively ventilate retrofitted barns.    
Positive-pressure tubes often work in retrofitted barns but may present some challenges. We try to make use of windows or old exhaust fan holes to avoid cutting through outside walls. In barns with low ceilings, it can be difficult to install fans or tubes so they can’t be reached by calves or skidloaders.  
Recommendations by the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine and others include a minimum of 600 to 1,000 cubic feet of air space or four air exchanges per hour during winter, 15 to 20 air exchanges per hour during transitional periods like spring and fall, and 40 or more air exchanges per hour in the summer. When air space is limited, it reduces the number of animals you can house or requires increased ventilation without drafting calves. Work with someone trained in air specifications before construction takes place. These early discussions can potentially save you time and expense.
A comprehensive cleaning and sanitation program is key to preventing disease in any calf facility. Pens should be designed for cleaning ease. It is generally not recommended to pressure wash or aerosolize water in an enclosed calf barn. Consider removable panels to sanitize between calves or have a system for cleaning in place. Foamers can be good options for disinfecting clean surfaces.   
With any age of calves or heifers, think about how you will feed and water animals in a retrofitted barn. This is often one of the biggest pitfalls. Baby calves must reach the bottom of the pail, which may require adjusting pail heights as the calves grow. Weaned calves and older heifers need to easily reach through the bunk to access feed. Design the feeding space so you can push up feed and keep it fresh.  
Adequate hot water availability can be a challenge in barns where an older water heater cannot keep up with demands of the feeding and cleaning processes. From a consumption standpoint, water pressure, access and quality are all additional considerations.
Retrofitting a tiestall barn for calves can be an efficient way to reallocate existing space and resources on a farm. Start with a checklist of needs and determine if that old facility can functionally fill those needs. If so, work with industry representatives who can advise you on making  updates. The goal is a facility that allows your calf team to comfortably care for calves while achieving optimum health and performance.   
    Barry Visser is a nutritionist for Vita Plus.