Benefits of socially reared calves are many

Gloria Hafemeister
When feeding young stock it is important to make sure they can easily reach the feed.  Sometimes that means raising the feed trough so calves will be able to reach the feed better.

TRENTON – Ever since University of Wisconsin researchers, back in the 1960’s, showed farmers the benefits of individual housing for newborn calves, farmers have been housing calves individually.That has been a common practice for good reason.

But, according to new research by Dr. Jennifer Van Os of University of Wisconsin-Madison, housing calves in groups of two or more can be a win-win-win situation.

Speaking at a calf care workshop at the Trenton Town Hall in Dodge County last week she said when calves are given a partner the calves win, the farm wins and consumers win.

Jennifer Van Os

A calf will be happier and grow better when housed with another close to her age.  Farmers benefit because calves grow better and bigger and that eventually translates into more milk when they enter the herd. Consumer perception improves when they know calves are not isolated but instead are allowed to socialize.

Farmers began the practice of individual hutches for calves when the research showed that isolation was seen to decrease the risk of calf-to-calf disease transmission, reducing morbidity and mortality rates. Without computerized monitoring, single housing also allowed for ease of tracking feed intake and signs of illness.

In recent years larger corporations such as McDonalds have been dictating how farmers should care for their livestock. This idea has met with resistance from some farmers who have been basing their livestock-care decisions on what research has shown is best, not what consumers see as best. Dr. Van Os and other researchers have been looking at these consumer concerns.

She notes that both consumers and farmers are concerned about animal welfare. She describes animal welfare, by definition, as how well the cow or calf is faring. 

She also points out that animal welfare is different than animal rights. The animal rights activists are out to do away with raising any animals for food. Those concerned about animal welfare are simply worried about the comfort of the animals.

While consumers are worried about calves being “happy” with social interaction, some dairy producers are now learning that there are practical reasons for pairing calves as well.

Researchers have found that pairing calves in a common area encourages play behavior when in turn helps them get along better once they are in the freestall barn with the rest of the herd.

Farmers who have tried pairing calves have used a variety of methods. Some set two individual hutches together and have a common “play area” outside the hutches. Others have used super hutches to put two animals, ideally less than a week apart in age, into a common area.

It is important to maintain per-calf space allowance, meaning an increase in total space for pairs or groups. A larger space allows calves to show a wider range of natural behaviors, including playing.

She also points out, “Socially reared calves show better flexibility and adaptability to change, including a greater willingness to try new feeds such as hay and total-mixed ration.”

She says that translates into better resilience to weaning stress. Calves reared with social companions bellow less during weaning. When regrouped after weaning they start feeding sooner and don’t show the same growth check that conventionally reared calves commonly do.

She concludes, “So it’s more than just making them socially happy. They also ate and developed better and when they entered the dairy herd they were better able to get along with the other cows in the herd.”

Whether raising calves individually or in pairs, she points to the importance of starting from a baseline of proper care and nutrition. These basic factors include:

  • Feed sufficient excellent-quality colostrum to promote passive transfer of immunity.
  • Feed sufficient milk or milk replacer for an excellent plane of nutrition.
  • Ensure ventilation for good air quality.
  • Allow sufficient space.
  • Provide clean and dry bedding.
  • Ensure biosecurity and sanitation practices.
  • Limit age differences within groups.
  • Utilize all-in-all-out practices.

Farmers attending the workshop expressed concerns about issues like cross-sucking when calves are housed together.

Dr. Van Os says it helps to feed a sufficient quantity of milk and consider how that milk is fed. Providing a “dummy” or “dry teat” or using step-down weaning will help.

Benchmarking young stock

Dr, Noah Litherland

The calf workshop also featured ideas for young stock benchmarking. Dr. Noah Litherland, a youngstock specialist with Vita Plus, shared ideas of ways to monitor the younger animals to ensure that heifers will start out strong.

By benchmarking, producers are able to determine when calves will do better with increased feed and which ones are best off starting slow.

He points out that the rumen takes time to develop and if smaller animals are pushed it will not allow for proper rumen development but larger animals may require more feed in order to develop to their full potential.

He also pointed to some practical ways to improve the growth and development of calves including matching the nutrients fed to weather conditions and properly mixing milk replacer.

Amanda Young

While the focus of the workshop focused on ways to raise calves to be a healthy productive part of the dairy herd, Amanda Young, Extension Dairy and Livestock Educator with UW-Madison Division of Extension Dodge County advised producers to consider the economics of raising young stock and to decide whether or not they should be raising every heifer calf born on the farm.

Looking at the economics, she suggests it costs $2510 to raise a heifer.

“If we raise more than we need to replace cull cows in the herd the costs can add up,” she said.

She suggests evaluating how many replacement animals will be needed in a year and then picking and choosing which heifer calves to raise as replacements. 

Using a 100-cow herd as an example, she said “If you raise 10 more heifers than you need for replacement in a year that will cost your farm $25,000.”

She also points out that with today’s prices, a producer will not likely recover the cost of raising a heifer if the decision is made to sell a heifer later.