Group Calf Rearing: Why and How

Group housing for preweaned calves doesn’t necessarily have to mean large pens of autofed calves.
( Joao H. C. Costa, University of Kentucky )

Although group housing and rearing of preweaned dairy calves is a growing trend, the majority of all dairy calves in the U.S. and Canada still are raised in isolation. University of Kentucky dairy science researcher Joao H. C. Costa would like to see that statistic change, for a number of reasons.

“Animal behavior research tells us that all animals – not just calves – are more socially well-adjusted and calm when they are reared with another animal,” Costa said on a webinar hosted by the Dairy Cattle Welfare Council. “Social isolation, on the other hand, has been shown to produce long-lasting behavioral impairment in many species, including cattle. Researchers have found that animals – including pets – raised in isolation are more aggressive, cognitively impaired, and fearful.”

Costa said he regularly hears first-hand testimony of the value of social rearing from the dairy farmers who have switched from isolated housing. “They say their calves are much less wary and fearful since switching systems,” he noted. Additional research has shown that group-housed calves have greater ability to forage and locate feed, and are more flexible and adaptable. That can translate into later-life behaviors, such as ease in learning how to use the milking parlor.

When Costa evaluated a number of studies comparing the performance of calves reared in groups versus individually, group housing never was found to be a negative factor for body weight, average daily gain or solid feed intake. He said calves take cues from one another, including where to find feed and water.

Reaping the value of group housing does not necessarily require whole scale transition to autofeeder pens. Costa said the benefits can be realized by rearing calves in groups as small as two. He advised the following fundamentals for transitioning to group calf housing:

  1. Excellent colostrum management – Failure of passive transfer (FTP) of immunity should be less than 5%, and calf mortality (excluding stillbirths) also should be less than 5%. If you’re not hitting those benchmarks, improve your colostrum program before switching to group housing.
  2. A management plan – Switching to group housing will require you to anticipate how calves will be grouped; feeding equipment will be maintained; and facilities will be cleaned between groups. Costa recommended a span of no more than 3-4 weeks of age and 30-50 pounds of body weight between calves that are grouped together. Sanitary feeding equipment is a must, and all-in, all-out facility management is necessary for disease prevention.
  3. Staff training – You should prepare standard operating procedures (SOPs) for all calf caretakers and train them accordingly. Costa said methods for early disease detection are critical for these SOPs, as are feeding data, feeding equipment cleaning, and bedding maintenance.
  4. An intensive milk-feeding program – Costa’s experience has shown that paired or group-housed calves need a minimum of 6 liters of milk or milk replacer per day, and preferably higher, for the first month of life to discourage cross-sucking. After 30 days on this full-milk ration, allotments can be cut in half for 1-2 weeks, followed by one more step-down in volume for the last 7-10 days on milk.

Costa said the basic requirements of an excellent group-housing system really are no different than those for individually housed calves. They are:

  • Dry, clean bedding
  • Good air quality/ventilation
  • Disease prevention
  • Colostrum management; and
  • Proper nutrition

“Calves are highly intelligent and able to learn from each other,” said Costa. “Combined with the fundamentals we already know are important for raising healthy calves, group housing can help them be both healthy and socially secure.”