You’ve spent weeks nurturing calves from birth to weaning. The payoff is in hutches full of bright-eyed, active, healthy heifers.

Don’t drop the ball when you move them to group housing. This can be a stressful time for heifers, and it’s easy for problems to arise during this phase. Especially if their housing isn’t up to snuff. 

Review these six areas of your transition facilities and management to make sure the shift from
individual housing to group pens is a smooth as possible.

1. Offer room to relax

Group pens should be designed so that animals have plenty of room to walk around and lie down without being frequently disturbed by pen-mates. That means you need to provide about 30 square feet of bedded resting space per animal.

If your pens include feed and scraping alley space, do not include those areas in your calculation for resting space. It can be easy to forget, however, and could result in heifers receiving as little as 15 or less square feet of resting space. When that happens, heifers cannot rest without interruption, which is stressful and a precondition for illness and poor feed conversion efficiency, says Sam Leadley, calf care specialist with Attica Veterinary Associates in Attica, N.Y.

“If you give heifers 30 square feet of resting space, that is generally a low-stress environment and they’ll perform better,” Leadley says.

2. Ventilate

Good ventilation is not just for lactating cows; calves need plenty of fresh, dry air to breathe, too.

Natural ventilation is often preferred over mechanical ventilation, but some facilities will need both. And others will require fully mechanical-ventilation systems to meet air-exchange needs.

Regardless of the method, data from CornellUniversity show that the recommended air exchange rate per animal at this stage should be at least 20 cubic feet per minute in cold weather. That jumps to 60 cubic feet per minute per animal in mild weather and to 130 cubic feet per minute per animal in
hot weather.

Properly ventilated facilities will have humidity levels near that of the outdoors and no ammonia odor. Keep in mind that animal respiration adds to humidity levels, as does water usage within the building. For instance, urine or water that is allowed to stand, as well as careless water hose or power washer use, can increase humidity
levels significantly.

Check with an agricultural engineer for remediation recommendations if you suspect your heifer facilities suffer from poor ventilation.

3. Provide plenty of bunk space

According to researchers at PennStateUniversity, post-weaned heifers should have at least 18 inches of feed bunk space. This space requirement stays in effect from two to four months of age.

Use stanchions or dividers to define the eating positions, if possible. This enables heifers to learn to eat from a community bunk.

And remember, do not overcrowd or skimp on bunk space. There should be a slot for each animal, and enough slots so that all heifers can eat a once to ensure adequate intake. This reduces variation in growth rates within pens.

Watch heifers as they eat, recommends Neil Broadwater, regional dairy-extension educator at the University of Minnesota. “Are they all diving into the feed, or are some backing away from it?” Also note any competition at the feed bunk. Grouping animals by size should reduce this problem, but you may need to re-group heifers if competition gets out of hand.

4. Provide lots of fresh water

Heifers that have never experienced group housing need easy-to-find, visible and uncrowded access to water. Provide continuous access to water during all weather conditions, which may mean installing heated waterers in colder climates.

Consider separate waterers for each pen to reduce contagious diseases, especially if you struggle with them, suggests Leadley.

5. Find poor-doers

Not every heifer on your operation is going to flourish immediately in a group setting. So be prepared to intervene when necessary.

The easiest way to spot under-performing heifers is to limit the number of animals per pen. If possible, group no more than eight heifers together at first. It is much easier to find those who do not adapt to a group environment or are sick if you only have a few to observe at one time, says Leadley.

If that is not practical on your operation, assign one person to observe each heifer every day for signs of problems. Just be sure not to overcrowd pens. Develop a protocol of how to handle poorly performing animals. Then put it into practice.

6. Create handling facilities

Make sure your transition housing has the tools, like stanchions and scales, to routinely handle and manage heifers. Then you can accomplish needed tasks, like vaccinations and sorting, with a minimum of stress to animals and people. 

Evaluate heifer housing

Use this checklist to determine how well your facilities meet the criteria described on these pages. Answer “yes” or “no” in the blank next to each statement. If you answered “no”
to three or more of these statements, it may be time to revamp your transition-heifer housing or management.

–––––– Each heifer has 30 square feet of resting space.

–––––– Pens are limited to eight heifers each or less. Or one person is assigned to check each calf daily.

–––––– Housing provides adequate ventilation.

–––––– Bunk space allows all heifers to eat at once; each heifer has 18-inches of bunk space.

–––––– Heifers have easy access to fresh water at all times.

–––––– Handling heifers is stress-free for animals and people.