Cost-effective Group Housing for Dairy Calves

Cow Comfort Inn Dairy Group Calf Barn
Having room for calves to stretch their legs and play with items like a tether ball has helped Cow Comfort Inn Dairy’s calves with health and socialization. ( Wyatt Bechtel )

When a blizzard wiped out a first-generation dairy farm’s calf barn in Maryland, decisions had to be made about what kind of calf raising system to move forward with.

Katie Dotterer-Pyle and her husband, David, are both third-generation farmers. They branched out from their family operations and started their own farm, Cow Comfort Inn Dairy outside Union Bridge, Md., in 2013 after renting other farms. The following year a snow storm toppled a greenhouse structure that was used to house calves in individual stalls.

Following the storm the couple had to decide what system would be best to raise calves. Katie wasn’t exactly on board with group housing, but after some convincing from David they went that direction.

Overcame Early Doubts

“I was just like a lot of farmers. I looked at it, and there’s one nipple, there’s 25 calves. This can’t be good, right?” Katie says.

The early skepticism Katie had over potential calf health risks was put at ease after two ID-TEK automatic calf feeders were installed on the farm. Two pens of up to 20 calves each are housed under the tin barn.

“I’ve been super surprised, and I’m glad I was proved wrong,” Katie says of how well the system works.

Cow Comfort Inn Dairy selected the ID-TEK feeders because they were an economical option.

“It’s not a $50,000 automatic calf feeder like some people put in,” Katie adds. “We’re first generation, so we’ve got to really watch what we spend. We don’t have the equity that a lot of farms do.”

The cost to purchase the two feeders was about $5,000. While the feeders don’t have as many features as other automatic systems, they have been easy to operate, repair and clean.

“They’re not perfect, but they work for what we want,” Katie relates.

Jerseys Take Extra Care

Because Cow Comfort Inn Dairy has predominately Jersey genetics from its 400-cow herd, it requires a little extra care to get calves started. Calves spend at least 10 days in an individual stall prior to entering a group pen. In the stalls, calves receive pasteurized waste milk rather than the milk replacer that goes into automatic feeders.

It takes approximately 24 to 48 hours to train a calf to nurse the feeders in the group pens. Calves also have a starter ration available to eat from a hanging bunk.

One of the biggest benefits of group housing Katie has seen is the ability for calves to exercise and interact.

“They love to run around. I think it’s actually better for calf health, especially if I have a sick one in the individual stall. I cannot wait to get her out and put her in the group pen because just the exercise of that calf being able to run around, it does a lot for that animal,” Katie says.

Hanging in the middle of the group pens are tether balls for the calves to play with, too.

“Calves learn to socialize a lot quicker. We’ve noticed an increase in growth faster with the group pens because we are able to see how much they’re eating,” Katie says.