Calf housing – individual or group?

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Raising heifer dairy calves in groups rather than in individual pens has been growing in popularity among some dairy farmers. Other dairy producers continue to go with the recommendation of getting heifer calves out of groups and isolated from one another. Which is best?

First, we should discuss the reasons we separated calves, then we can talk about the reasons people are putting them back together.

We separated calves primarily for four reasons:

  1. To reduce the risk of disease transmission between calves.
  2. To prevent sucking on each other.
  3. To be able to feed individually.
  4. To be able to monitor calves better.

Those are all good reasons, but they also come with some drawbacks. As we isolate calves we increase labor, especially as farms get larger. We also limit social interactions among calves and the potential for younger calves to learn from older calves.

Why then would we want to consider grouping calves? The reasons for grouping calves primarily focus on these three areas:

  1. Lower labor requirement.
  2. Benefits of socialization that may include better performance.
  3. At least the perception, but possibly the fact, of improved animal welfare.

Let’s consider the last statement about improved animal welfare, because that concept is getting a lot of attention in animal agriculture and the companies that serve meat and animal products. This may be a value statement of my own, but decreased health is not increased animal welfare. So, if a practice adversely affects the health of animals, it cannot, at least by my definition, increase the welfare of the animal.

Do group-raised calves suffer from decreased health? Not according to many producers who have been group-raising calves. Here’s the thing: if we do an excellent job of providing a healthy environment and good nutrition, then we will have healthy calves. Healthy calves don’t pass along problems.

Group housing of calves is linked to the different kinds of calf feeding. With individually-housed calves the number of meals is constrained by labor. In general, group-housed calves are fed more milk, more times per day which closely mimics what they would get in nature. Newborns can suckle cows up to ten times per day.

The keys to success are the same no matter how you are housing calves:

  • Get calves started off right - Ensure effective colostrum feeding to obtain successful and adequate passive transfer of immunoglobulin from dam to calf.
  • Feed the calf enough - Calves need to be provided with the nutrients for growth, health and temperature regulation.
  • Keep calves clean and dry - Bacteria grow where they have opportunity. Clean and dry bedding provides less opportunity for their growth.
  • Monitor performance and look for early signs of sickness - Whether in individual pens or a group pen, each calf needs to be regularly monitored.
  • Provide good ventilation - Good air exchange without drafts is important to reduce viral and bacterial exposure and stress on calves in any housing.

Is there one right way to raise calves? No, but the proof of any pudding is in the tasting. The Dairy Calf & Heifer Association Gold Standards for calves from 24 hours of life to 60 days include these goals:

  • Mortality: < 5 percent
  • Scours requiring intervention lasting at least 24 hours: < 25 percent
  • Pneumonia requiring treatment: < 10 percent
  • Growth: Double birth weight by 60 days

Whether you individually house calves or group-house calves, these standards can help you evaluate performance at your farm and be a report card on your management.

Of course there is much more to be learned and said, and more articles to be written about group-housing and feeding of calves. Please see the article by Dr. Miriam Weber Nielsen in the July 2012 issue of the Michigan Dairy Review.

The bottom line is that group-housing has been a very successful change for some dairy producers and calf growers in Michigan as well as other states and countries. Whether it is for you depends on your current facilities, goals, labor force and performance in raising healthy calves.


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