• Your Plan for Healthier, Happier and (Eventually) More Productive Dairy Calves

    Your Plan for Healthier, Happier and (Eventually) More Productive Dairy Calves

    Your calves are the future of your herd. You invest a lot of time and money into raising them to be as healthy and efficient as possible.


    Recent research demonstrates that housing calves in pairs or groups from an early age results in bigger, healthier calves that make a better transition to the post-weaning period than those that are housed individually pre-weaning.


    Transitioning to this system may require some upfront costs, but the short and long term benefits to your young stock’s health, social behavior and feed efficiency, as well as your operation as a whole are significant.


    Pre-weaning Benefits

    The first two months after birth is the most efficient growth period for calves¹. Pair housing calves for the first 3 weeks and then in groups of less than eight may accelerate the calves’ growth and development due to social learning. Pairing a young calf with a slightly older, more experienced calf stimulates feeding behavior, leading to higher intakes—however, paired calves should be no more than 2 weeks apart in age due to differences in fecal composition that could increase the risk of disease².


    In one study by the University of British Columbia, calves that were paired from birth had a solid feed intake that was 1.8 pounds more than individually housed or late paired calves and an average daily gain of 2 pounds compared to 1.6 pounds³. This difference was especially highlighted when calves also received larger amounts of milk, which is known to growth and increase yield during the first lactation.


    paired-calves-in-penA separate experiment by researchers at the University of Guelph found that although pair and individually housed calves ate the same total amount of feed, pair-housed calves consumed this amount over a greater number of meals, increasing digestibility and therefore optimizing rumen development. Other studies show that pair housing calves from birth decreases scours and keeps them more relaxed, smoothing the transition into the post-weaning period.


    Post-Weaning Benefits

    While better growth in the pre-weaning period contributes to a greater first lactation yield, many of the long-term benefits of pairing or grouping calves are related to herd behavior. Studies show that calves that were individually housed find social feeding stressful when they are introduced into the main herd.


    This produces a greater number of submissive heifers who may not consume the required amount or appropriate composition of nutrients at the feedbunk. This inadequate nutrition delays breeding and increases the age at first calving. Introducing calves to social feeding from an early age may prevent this submissive behavior from developing, consequently increasing reproductive and production efficiency.


    Management Benefits

    Housing calves in individual pens has been used in the past for easier monitoring¹. With recent advances in agricultural technology, this is no longer needed in the same way. Automated feeding systems and activity monitors are able to deliver consistent rations and monitor the pens for any sign of illness.


    These systems can be customized to allow smaller and younger calves to flourish along with their larger group mates. When installed and used correctly, automated systems can actually deliver better monitoring than traditional methods.


    Group pens have the added benefits of optimizing usable space within the barn³ and improving the control of air quality.


    Conclusion

    If it’s appropriate for your operation, there are many advantages to offset the initial cost of transitioning your calf management system. Not only do calves show accelerated growth, development and better health during the pre-weaning period, but they also learn vital social behaviors that increase feed efficiency and production in later life.


    ¹Mattox, J. (2016, January 19). Accelerated group feeding has potential long term benefits. Progressive Dairyman, pp. 44-45.

    ²House, H. K. (2010, December). Housing at the Delicate Stage. Milk Producer, pp. 28-29.

    ³Costa, J. H. (2016, January 19). Best time to pair-house calves? As soon as possible. Progressive
    Dairyman, pp. 60-62.

    ⁴Schwartz, T. (2016, July/August). Alternative Housing: Raising Calves in Pairs. Virginia Dairy Pipeline, p. 1.

    ⁵Bunting, S. (2016, January 19). Pankratz family focus on youngstock positions farm for future. Progressive Dairyman, pp. 38-40.

    About the Author

    Anna Schwanke is an undergraduate student at the University of Guelph, Ontario. She is responsible for researching and writing about a wide variety of topics related to dairy cow welfare and management for Dairy Quality Inc. The 10 years she spent living in Australia, as well as her love of travelling, give her a firsthand viewpoint of issues facing the international dairy community. She plans to graduate from the University’s College of Physical & Engineering Science in 2019 and pursue a career in the Life Sciences or Agriculture industry.


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