Group Housing Could Improve Calf Welfare

Maureen Hanson ( Salmonella Heidelberg is a multi-drug-resistant Salmonella species that can cause severe illness in calves and humans, and is transmittable between the two. )

Animal welfare has always been at the top of mind for dairy producers, but recent research has shown that it has become a growing concern for consumers as well. With the number of food product labels constantly rising, it should come as no surprise that labels such as “Animal Welfare Approved” and “Certified Humane” are starting to pop up on grocery store shelves.

Today’s consumers are faced with more food choices than ever before and recent research has shown that consumers perceive the need to increase the level of welfare in farm animals, despite the fact that their level of knowledge about farming and animal welfare issues is relatively low. 

So, how can some of these concerns be addressed on the farm? 

During a recent Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin webinar, Dr. Theresa Ollivett, assistant professor at UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, and Dr. Jennifer Van Os, assistant professor and Extension specialist in animal welfare in the Department of Dairy Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, spoke on some of the specific animal welfare benefits of raising dairy calves in a group or paired system. 

Social Benefits

“What animal welfare means is understanding how to provide the best quality of life for an animal,” Van Os says. “That means making sure that the cow or the calf is not only healthy but [that we] understand what that particular species and life stage needs from a behavioral perspective.”

For dairy calves, social development is critical at a young age for the calf to perform well among other animals. Utilizing a paired or group housed system allows the calf to better develop its social skills, thus improving the calf’s welfare in terms of social contact due to the fact that it is given the opportunity to live in a herd setting from birth. 

“Calves learn to play well with others [in a grouped system], both literally and figuratively, so they learn to communicate with others of their species, and this benefits them as they are developing and maturing,” Van Os says. “This translates to better resilience to stress during weaning and also better social rank when they mature, so they are able to get better access to resources without being aggressive.”

Previous research had suggested that individual housing of calves could be beneficial from a convivence perspective, but in the last few decades farmers have learned a lot about best practices for housing and managing calves, according to Van Os. Therefore, producers have the ability to reduce health risks better than years before in a group or paired system. 

However, this does not mean that raising calves together does not have challenges, Van Os warns. 

“We don’t want a much older calf paired with a much younger calf because, even though from a learning perspective the younger calf actually has a lot to learn from the older calf, there is still just too much of a disease risk,” she says.

In order for a group housing system to be successful, all of the building blocks of proper calf management need to be put in place before switching from individual calf housing to grouped or paired housing, according to Ollivett. These basic principles include passive transfer, hygiene, sanitation and nutrition.

A Rewarding Experience

“When you are making the decision as to whether it is feasible or not to raise calves in a grouped system, things have to be going well on an individual basis first before that transition is made,” Ollivett says. “If you think that it is going to be easier to pair your calves or to put them in groups and that it is going to make life better, most people find that if it is really hard already raising individual calves, when they put them in groups it always seems to get harder.”

Before transitioning from an individual housing system to a group or paired system, it is important to do your homework before diving in, Ollivett and Van Os warn.

“Think about pairing or grouping calves as something that has several potential benefits and that there are a lot of success stories out there,” Van Os says. “It’s not one-size-fits-all and not everybody will be right to jump into it right away, but there are a lot of producers who have switched to paired group housing in the last few years and have found success and have found that they enjoy it.”

Though raising calves in a group setting does not come without its challenges, it can be a rewarding tactic not only for the calf, but for the calf managers as well. 

“We have a relationship with the animals that we manage. So, things that are good from animal welfare can also be good for us,” Van Os says. “I would encourage people to consider that this isn’t something that is being pushed on us by an outside force. It’s that we have discovered lots of benefits for the calf’s welfare, for its growth and that there are also potential benefits for the people who are working with them as well. And I think there are a lot of producers out there who can attest that it is something that they have found really rewarding.”