For dairy calves, two (or more) heads are better than one

Jennifer Van Os
One way to pair calves is in adjacent hutches with shared fencing, as in a recent research study at the UW-Madison Blaine Dairy.

When it comes to raising dairy calves, two – or more – heads are better than one in several ways. For the past decades, the majority of calves in the U.S. and Canada are housed singly before weaning. More and more dairy producers, however, are part of a trend toward pair or group raising.

The consensus from the research is now that pairs and small groups, when managed well, can provide clear benefits. Housing milk-fed calves with at least one social partner can be a win-win-win in terms of animal welfare, calf growth performance, and consumer perception – all of which are important for the vitality and sustainability of Wisconsin’s dairy industry.

Good for the calf. Calves learn to play well with others of their kind, literally and figuratively. It’s important to maintain per-calf space allowance, meaning an increase in total space for pairs or groups.

This larger space allows calves to show a wider range of natural behaviors, including playing. Having social contact early in life helps them learn appropriate social interactions and also improves their other learning abilities.

Calves raised in social groups show flexibility and adaptability to change, including a better willingness to try new feeds such as hay and TMR. This translates into improved resilience to stress and less bellowing during weaning. When regrouped after weaning, they start feeding sooner and don’t show the same growth check that individually raised calves commonly do.

Good for growth performance. Across a dozen studies, calves raised in pairs or small groups outperformed single calves in one or more ways. Performance advantages were especially apparent for calves fed higher milk or replacer allowances.

  • Solid feed intake: by ¼ to 1 pound per day pre-weaning and ¾ to 2.5 pounds per day post-weaning
  • Body weight at weaning: by 5 to 9 pounds
  • Average daily gain: by ¼ pound

Becoming established on solid feeds before weaning is important for stimulating rumen function, and better early-life growth translates to earlier onset of puberty and higher milk production at maturity.

Good for consumer acceptance. Last summer, Rielle Perttu, Beth Ventura, and Marcia Endres from the University of Minnesota surveyed over 1300 adults attending the Minnesota State Fair. They were shown photos of calves in single, pair, or small-group pens in a barn. Nearly half of the participants disapproved of individual housing, whereas only 14% of people disagreed with pair housing and only 7% disagreed with group housing.

In contrast, two thirds of participants agreed with pair housing and three quarters agreed with group pens, whereas only a third thought single housing was acceptable. Nearly all of these fair-goers consumed dairy products. This is the first study showing that social housing may be important for continued consumer acceptance of dairy production.

Social housing can be done in many ways, either in a calf barn or outdoors in hutches (photo) or super hutches. Dairy producers who have chosen to shift to social calf raising have found that changing their management sometimes comes with bumps along the way. Nonetheless, many of the principles for promoting good health outcomes are similar whether managing individuals, pairs, or groups.

The risk of respiratory disease is reduced by feeding sufficient high-quality colostrum to promote passive transfer of immunity, feeding sufficient milk or milk replacer for a high plane of nutrition, and ensuring ventilation for good air quality. Sufficient space, clean and dry bedding, good biosecurity and sanitation, limiting age differences within groups, and all-in-all-out practices are also important.

Providing appropriate outlets for suckling can reduce the rates of cross sucking. For example, by feeding milk through a teat instead of an open bucket or providing “dummy” or “dry” teats. Calves should have access to any of these for at least 20 minute after they finish a milk meal.

Regardless of pre-weaning housing, cross sucking sometimes increases directly after weaning. Calves who are better established on solid feed are less likely to cross suck, so gradual, step-down weaning based on starter intake can help.

In our lab at UW-Madison, we are doing research on solutions for cross sucking and other management questions around pair and group raising. Our goal is to help more dairy producers join the list of success stories for social raising.

Jennifer Van Os

Van Os is an Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist in Animal Welfare, Department of Dairy Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison