After years of raising calves individually, some farms have made the switch to group housing. These farms are looking to capture the benefits of socialization along with less intensive feeding, often using autofeeder technology.
Despite the benefits of group housing, there is a catch. Consistently, research shows that the longer calves can be backgrounded (housed and fed individually) before they are put into a group pen setting, the better.
University of Minnesota’s Sandra Godden shared a few of these studies during her presentation at the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin (PDPW) Annual Business Conference.
One study compared calves introduced to a group at Day 1 versus Day 5. The younger calves took longer to learn how to drink without assistance. They also drank less milk the first few days, and in turn, had a higher incidence of severe diarrhea.
Another study looked at calves 6 days old and 14 days old when put into group pens. They also found that the younger calves needed more guidance to the feeder and took longer to adapt and drink at the feeder.
Research looking at calves introduced to a pen at Day 1 compared to Day 21 found that the younger calves had a significant rise in scours and respiratory disease.
“Fairly consistently, all the research says the longer you can background them, the better. Twelve to 14 days or more is preferred,” Godden said. “They learn better, compete better, and are less likely to get sick.”
Godden added that a side effect of backgrounding calves longer is that group size is going to be smaller. While autofeeders are often advertised for 25 calves or more, many calf experts will say that is too many animals per feeder.
“Group size, in my mind, is probably the biggest risk factor in housing calves in groups,” Godden said.
She explained that overcrowding calf pens can lead to more competition, restricted milk intake, and elevated disease risk. If possible, Godden would recommend a group size of 20 animals or less. “Smaller is better,” she said.