What are the different types of animal housing?

At different times in your life, you may have slept in a cradle, a crib, a bunk bed or a cot. You may have lived in a townhouse, a cottage, a college dorm or an apartment. Where you lived depended on where you were in your life. Were you a toddler or a bachelor? A student or a young married person?

Just like people, animals live in different places depending on their stage of life.

Read about some common farm animals and where they live as they mature:

Pigs

When it is time for baby pigs (piglets) to be born, their mothers are moved to what are called farrowing crates. These small pens have metal bars that separate the mother from the piglets when they are born. This allows the piglets to nurse from her, but prevents the mother from accidentally laying on the baby pigs and crushing them.

Piglets stay with their mother for about two to four weeks. After that, they are moved to a nursery. Here, they are kept warm and given special food to help them transition from their mother’s milk to the adult pig feed they will be eating later on.

After these pigs have been in the nursery for four to eight weeks, they are moved to a finishing barn. This is where they are housed in pens and fed a diet made mostly of corn (for energy) and soybean meal (for protein). More recently, Dried Distiller's Grains with Soulbles (DDGS), a co-product of ethanol production is being use quite extensively in swine diets. When they grow to weigh around 260 pounds, they are ready to be taken to market.

Watch this video about pig farming in Illinois:

Sheep

The type of housing given to sheep depends on what kind of production system the farmer is using. In “farm flock” production systems, the farmer may allow his sheep access to pasture during the day and keep his sheep in a barn at night. During the winter, he may keep some sheep in the barn all day. These systems are usually found in the eastern part of the United States, where farms are smaller. In the western United States, “range flocks” are more common. These production systems often let sheep run free throughout the year, with the farmer moving with them as they graze. The sheep are less intensively managed than in farm flocks. The farmer has less control over his flock’s environment, but the sheep get more exercise and more time to graze.

The type of housing necessary for sheep also depends on what time of the year the baby sheep (lambs) are born. Because the producer has more contact with his sheep and more choice over where they are housed, this is more of an issue for farm flocks.

Usually, female sheep (ewes) are what farmers call short-day breeders, which means that it is easiest for them to get pregnant when the days are short, during fall and winter months. A ewe’s pregnancy lasts around 147 days, so lambs from ewes bred in the fall are born in the spring.

Spring lambs

Spring lambs are fairly easy to house. Weather is normally mild, so farmers only really have to worry about providing shelter from the wind, whether it is in a barn, an open shed or simply a wind-break like a stretch of fence or trees. These lambs will be fed enough solely by drinking their mother’s milk.

Sometimes, though, farmers may want to have lambs born at different times of the year. Because not a lot of people in the United States eat lamb on a regular basis, some producers like having their lambs ready for market at times of the year when demand (and price) for lamb is the highest: Christmas and Easter. Lambs born in the spring will be ready for Christmas, but will be too young to go to market by Easter. Farmers who want to sell their lambs at that time will have to breed their ewes earlier in the year. This is a difficult process and requires a lot of planning and preparation.

Depending on whether the ewes are bred in the spring or in the summer, their lambs may be born in either the fall or winter months.

Fall lambs

Lambs born in the fall are sometimes weaker than lambs born in the spring. This is because their mothers were pregnant with them during the hot months of the summer. Heat places stress on the pregnant ewe and can negatively affect the lamb inside of her. As a result, fall lambs need to be more carefully monitored than spring lambs, and may need to be kept in the barn or in a shelter during their first weeks of life. This may be difficult for the farmer to do, because fall is a busy time of year on a farm, and his attention may be needed elsewhere.

Winter lambs

Lambs born in the wintertime are easiest to care for if the farmer has a good supply of hay and grain. Because it is more difficult for the ewe to graze in the wintertime, the farmer may choose to supplement the ewe’s grazing with hay, or to keep her confined to the barn and give her all of her food in a complete ration.             

When the lamb is born, the farmer will have to feed even more hay and grain to the ewe, to give her enough energy to produce milk for a lamb. This gets to be very expensive, so the farmer wants to wean the lamb as soon as possible. He does this by allowing the lamb access to creep feed, a high-energy mixture of grain that is kept behind a small gate. Only the lamb can get through this gate to eat because his mother is too big to fit. This is why it is called “creep” feed. Eventually, the lamb will drink less milk and eat more hay and grain, until he is completely weaned and ready to leave his mother. For winter lambs, this happens when the lamb is about 60 days old.

After weaning, lambs may be loaded onto a truck and sent to a feedlot. These are large farms where lambs are kept in open pens and fed until they reach about 160 pounds. When they reach the proper weight, they are sent to market.

Beef cattle

In the commercial beef cattle industry, there are several different stages of production.

The cow/calf producer is responsible for breeding new calves to go to market and new young female cattle (heifers) to grow into new mothers for their herd.

These cows and their calves are housed in a barn and allowed access to pasture during the day, though some farmers choose to keep their cattle outside all day on pasture. When it comes time for the cow to give birth, the farmer may bring her into the barn so that he can monitor her until her calf comes.

Calves will usually stay with their mothers for seven or eight months, but the exact time of weaning depends on the condition of the cow and whether she is still making enough milk to feed the calf.

After they are weaned, calves are sent by truck or train to a feedlot. These are large farms where cattle are kept in group lots and fed until they reach market weight, usually 1,200 to 1,400 pounds.

Sometimes, though, calves can be sold as stocker cattle. These calves are usually smaller or weaned at a more difficult time of year, making them less valuable. They are bought by farmers who have room in their herds and allowed to graze until they grow big enough to be sent to a feedlot.

Dairy cattle

Unlike most other farm animals in larger production systems, dairy cows tend to stay in one place for most of their lives.

When baby cows (calves) are born, they are separated from their mothers to prevent the spreading of diseases from cow to calf. They are fed colostrum from their mom as quickly as possible. Colostrum is the first milk from the cow, which has special antibodies to protect the calf from diseases. Calves are then fed milk replacer for six weeks in order to preserve their mother’s milk for human consumption.

The female calves (heifers) are placed in individual pens, such as hutches, or together in groups, where they are fed milk replacer, grain, water and hay. At about seven weeks, calves are weaned, taken off milk, they are moved into group housing with other dairy heifers. These heifers then grow and once they have a calf, they begin producing milk and move into a barn with other cows.

The male calves are either kept to grow into dairy bulls or sold to other farms to be raised for veal or beef.

Adult dairy cows are usually kept in large, open barns with free stalls, meaning that they have the freedom to walk around the barn at will. These stalls are bedded with straw, sand, wood shavings and other bedding materials that make it comfortable for the cow to lie down.

On some farms, dairy cows are allowed to graze periodically throughout the day and are also provided with feed and water when they return to the barn. At least twice a day, they are taken to the milking parlor, where their milk is collected and pumped into a large steel vat and held there until a milk truck takes it to be processed.

Broilers (meat-type chickens)

There are two types of domestically-kept chickens: broilers and layers. Broilers are chickens that are raised for meat. They may live in several different places before they are old enough to go to market.

On special breeding farms, fertilized eggs are laid by a breeding hen. These eggs are taken to a hatchery and stored for up to ten days before they are placed into incubators. These incubators keep the eggs at a temperature of 55–88° F before they hatch into chicks at 21 days.

After hatching, the chicks are taken to other farms where they will grow to market weight. When the chicks first arrive, farmers may choose to divide their long, ventilated chicken houses into smaller sections, as the chicks are still very small and may have trouble finding their feed and water in a large space. Farmers may use brooding rings (small, round pens) to keep the chicks close to the food, water and heaters necessary to keep them healthy and warm.

As the birds grow, the farmers will take the dividers down and let the chickens move around the entire barn. The chickens will be kept in this barn until they weigh about six pounds and are ready to go to market.

Laying hens

After they have hatched, laying hens are kept in cages until they are around 17 weeks old. They are then moved into a laying house where they begin laying eggs. On larger farms, laying houses are connected by a series of conveyor belts that transfer the eggs from each house to a central building. Here the eggs are refrigerated and either processed on the farm or transported to another facility for further processing.

In conventional layer chicken systems, farmers can keep their chickens in either a floor system or battery-style cages. The floor system is a lot like broiler chicken housing, where chickens can roam the floor of the barn. Farmers can also keep their chickens in battery-style chickens, which separate the chickens from each other to prevent them from fighting.

Read about welfare concerns in animal housing.