The often-cited benefit of starting calves in hutches or individual pens is that they are healthier and less prone to sharing infectious diseases. The downside is that these calves tend to become conditioned to their human care givers and don’t know how to act as the herd animals they are.
“Hutches reverse the natural instinct of the calf to move away from a human when approached, and they come to rely on people for milk and feed,” says Jim Lewis, a specialist in animal behavior with StepRight Stockmanship Solutions, LLC. That can result in more stress at weaning, with dry matter intake sometimes dropping by half. In fact, University of British Columbia research shows individually housed calves can take up to two days to find feed and water when they are first comingled with others at weaning.
One way to combat this reverse in behavior is to “pen settle” calves, says Lewis, using their natural flight zones and prey-species instincts.
At weaning and shortly after calves are comingled in a pen for the first time, Lewis recommends going into the pen and moving the calves to the back of the pen, holding them there temporarily, releasing them individually and then driving them to feed and water. Do this by “pressuring,” simply moving to the side and slightly to the rear of each calf to move them. Then release them toward feed and water one at a time. This reinforces their natural instinct to follow other calves, validating their instinctual herding behavior.
Once they have all been released and pressured back to the food source, move them again to the back of the pen and repeat. “Do it again and again to teach them the herding behavior,” Lewis says. If possible, he recommends moving calves for several days following weaning to reinforce the herding behavior.