"Individual housing of pre-weaned calves is normally recommended to reduce the spread of disease. However, there has been increasing interest in group-housed systems as a way to reduce labor and also improve welfare by providing calves, who are social animals, social contact with peers," writes Sarah Morrison in The ‘Other’ Transition Period, published in the March 2013 Farm Report from the William H. Miner Agricultural Research Institute.
You may wonder if the social interaction with her peers is a good “substitute” for the learned behaviors a calf would get from its mother.
Several studies have evaluated the impact of pair and group settings through the milk-feeding and weaning stages and the impact on starter intake, growth and stress, Morrison says. Typically, calves in these studies have been fed a limited volume of milk (4 L/day). Calves that are housed as a group have been shown to begin eating grain at an earlier age than do individually housed calves. Also, when calves are able to eat near each other social facilitation occurs, resulting in an increased intake and better growth rates. Even housing calves in pairs, compared to housing them individually, has been shown to reduce weaning stress and improve performance after weaning.
These are all examples of grouping strategies during the milk-feeding phase, but what about calves that are fed individually?
"With all of this supporting evidence of improved gains and earlier consumption of starter in group settings, can we incorporate that into a grouping strategy of these individual calves around weaning?" Morrison says. "
One study evaluated calves that were placed into a small group of 8 calves six days before weaning. Those calves had greater average daily gain (ADG) than calves that were grouped at 56 days, when they were weaned and then moved.
"On farm and research settings have both addressed grouping strategies and health and performance parameters during the milk fed stage, but I would encourage all to consider different grouping strategies that could improve the transition through the weaning process so that calves can keep on track to become productive members of the herd," Morrison says.