Two heads are better than one: A starter guide to pairing dairy calves

Jennifer Van Os
Starter guide, called “Two heads are better than one: A starter guide to pairing dairy calves,” covers best practices to promote good health and welfare in calves raised in pairs or groups.

At the end of 2019, a group of us who work on dairy calf extension and outreach conducted a survey to understand current practices for raising dairy calves. The majority of the 400 producers who responded raise pre-weaned calves in individual housing, but many farms raise calves in pairs or groups.

Interest in the topic of pair or group-housing of dairy calves has been growing in recent years. Of the producers raising their calves individually, nearly 40% expressed interest in learning more about pair or group housing. Even many of those already raising calves in pairs or groups indicated they wanted to learn more.

We are publishing a series of 7 articles about pairing or group-housing of pre-weaned dairy calves. Throughout this guide, called “Two heads are better than one: A starter guide to pairing dairy calves,” we cover best practices to promote good health and welfare in calves raised in pairs or groups.

The article titles and topics are as follows:

1.     “Why all the fuss about pair housing?” In the introductory article, we review the research on benefits to calf development, grain intake and growth, and consumer acceptance. We also discuss the unclear impacts on calf health in group housing and introduce the subsequent articles on best practices to promote healthy calves.

2.     “Benchmarks for calf health before pair housing.” We provide benchmarks for transfer of passive immunity, morbidity, and mortality. Measuring these outcomes can help determine if the time is right for a farm to move to pair or group housing of calves.

3.     “Hygiene practices.” We cover best practices for reducing the spread of disease, including sanitation and bedding. 

4.     “Options for housing pairs or groups.” Social housing can be done in many ways, as we found in our 2019 survey. We describe the various practices producers can use to house calves in social groups. We also discuss the latest recommendations on space allowance.

5.     “Grouping strategies.” Here we discuss group size, age range within a group, the age calves enter a group, and strategies for pen and barn moves after weaning.

6.     “Feeding practices and reducing cross sucking.” We review the research on milk or milk replacer allowance, feeding methods, and weaning strategies to reduce unwanted behaviors like cross sucking, pen sucking, and milk stealing.

7.    “Disbudding and dehorning considerations.” We present the latest standards of care for disbudding, including considerations for pair- or group-housed calves.

The articles cover best practices informed by scientific evidence. We also address common questions we have received at workshops or when visiting with producers. We draw upon our expertise as researchers in calf health and welfare as well as our practical experience as extension specialists, agriculture educators, and bovine veterinary practitioners.

This guide was created by Jennifer Van Os, PhD, from the Department of Animal & Dairy Sciences at UW-Madison. Contributing to the guide are experts in dairy calf welfare: Sarah Adcock, PhD, also of the Department of Animal & Dairy Sciences at UW-Madison; Joao Costa, PhD, of the Department of Animal & Food Sciences at the University of Kentucky; and Emily Miller-Cushon, PhD, of the Department of Animal Sciences at the University of Florida. Also providing input are experts in calf health and bovine veterinary medicine: Theresa Ollivett, DVM, PhD and Courtney Halbach, MBA, of the Department of Medical Sciences in the UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine; and Sandy Stuttgen, DVM, of UW-Madison Extension in Taylor County. As well, Tina Kohlman, MS, of UW-Madison Extension in Fond du Lac County, contributed expertise in dairy calf and heifer management.

The first article in the guide has been published on the Animal Welfare Science at UW-Madison website: Parts 2 to 7 of the series will be published between now and the end of 2020.

Jennifer Van Os

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

UW Extension