Group-housed calf systems have been described as being closer to Mother Nature’s calf-raising plan. More-or-less automated, group-housed calf systems have improved, for the most part, overall calf health, growth rates and labor efficiency while reducing costs. Many of my clients have successfully converted to this type of system, but not without learning a thing or two in the process.

And while many dairy managers claim that labor efficiency significantly improves with this system, I still have not seen solid numbers to prove this in bigger dairies where an employee is in charge. I believe that with these systems, the type of labor required must be better and closely defined. Clearly, the day-to-day management of calves changes, and the person in charge of feeding calves becomes even more important to the success of the calf program. They now become calf managers and their job description goes beyond just mixing milk, cleaning and carrying bottles and buckets to the hutches. They now have to evaluate individually each calf within a group of calves, look at computer reports to analyze milk intake deviations, monitor the system cleanliness daily, and identify problems before serious problems develop. 

In the group-housed systems, the calf manager is key to the success or failure of the system. I’ve seen both in my travels, which is why it is so important to define the type of abilities and skills that the calf feeder/manager needs before recruiting someone, whether from within your dairy or from without. 

First, it is important to clearly understand the difference between a person’s abilities and skills. University of California-Davis Labor Management Farm Advisor Gregorio Billikopf defines them as follows:

Abilities = An innate or more stable talent. What a person can do. (Example: Ability to lift and carry a 50 pound bag, or having good animal senses)

Skills = Converting an ability or innate talent into something of value. (Example: Skills to give an injection, or pneumonia treatment skills, etc.)

Remember that abilities are those traits that a person must have in order to perform a job

properly. A person’s abilities cannot be developed through training or coaching. On the other hand, skills are those things that the person can learn, improve or develop.


Before hiring your calf manager for your new group-housed calf system, assess the type of abilities that your calf manager will need in order to succeed at the job. When recruiting someone for the calf manager position, look for the following abilities:

1. Good animal sense/nurturing: Having sensitivity to animals and the environment is probably the most important ability this person should have. If you are looking from within your operation for a candidate, look for people who are good around the cows — those who can handle cows in a calm and efficient way and are the best at identifying health issues with the cows.

2. Consistent and on time every day: This is critical, since following routines and doing things the same way and at the same time every day is the key driver of any successful program at the dairy. 

3. Organized, methodical and detail-oriented: This person will have to organize maintenance schedules, de-horning schedules, weaning schedules, vaccination protocols, treatment protocols, etc. Also, he or she will have to closely monitor each individual calf from different groups, monitor computer reports and more.

4. Ability to read and write (preferably in both English and Spanish): This person will not only have to keep treatment and calf care reports up to date but also read protocols, labels and more.

5. Ability to follow protocols and directions: Once the person goes through the training and understands the “whys” of the different jobs and protocols that he or she needs to follow, directions need to be followed to the “T” in order to prevent problems from occurring by ensuring that proper procedures are always followed.

6. Good communicator: Very little gets accomplished as it should when the lines of communication get crossed. You as a manager can help improve this by establishing good communication processes, like frequent meetings and reports, that help improve communication.

7. Patient and calm, yet efficient during stressful situations: When animals don’t cooperate — say, moving around when they need to stand still on a scale — it can be frustrating. The calf manager must stay calm at all times while still finding an efficient way to get the job done without causing stress to the animals.

8. Cleanliness: Before hiring the person, look at how he or she presents himself. If the person is already working at your dairy, is he or she always dirty (milking with dirty gloves and arms and never paying attention to this)? Does the person maintain their working area to keep it clean and tidy? How’s their locker? This is absolutely crucial when it comes to calf care and feeding. The most common problem I see during disease outbreaks in dairies is that proper cleaning protocols were not followed at all times.

9. Ability to lift heavy bags and animals (50-100# weight): Some physical abilities will be required for the job. Don’t hire someone who constantly needs help to lift bags or work with the animals because they can’t do it themselves.

10. Ability to measure ingredients and liquids and do basic math: This is important when mixing milk, measuring the right treatment dose, weighing calves, calculating growth rates, etc.

Next time we will discuss which skills are needed in a group-housed calving system manager.

Felix Soriano is a labor management/human resource consultant with APN Consulting LLC, Warrington, Pa. Contact him via phone: 215-738-9130, email: or visit