Much like social media “influencers” can sway people’s purchasing decisions, especially those of younger shoppers, there are influencing factors that shape a farm’s calf-rearing program. Economic viability and labor availability have been two major determinants for years, but more recently, welfare concerns and consumer perception are also part of the equation.

“Calves are visible to consumers; they are one thing they identify with the dairy industry,” said Bob James, a professor emeritus at Virginia Tech and a dairy consultant with Down Home Dairy Solutions, during the October Hoard’s Dairyman webinar.

He explained that the way we house calves can stir up emotions and opinions from the public. For example, people tend to have a more positive perception of calves that are raised in groups over calves housed individually. Although this might not be easy to achieve on all farms, there are benefits for the calves and their caretakers in group housing systems.

“There is wonderful research looking at social development of calves,” noted James. He said that calves housed in pairs or groups begin eating calf starter sooner. They are more adaptable, and they respond to novel situations, such as a new grouping or new feed, more favorably. “They learn from each other,” James explained.

These socially raised calves also tend to get through the weaning process easier, avoiding the dreaded postweaning slump. In addition, some producers have anecdotal evidence that these animals grow up to be easier to work with as cows.

James shared a few keys to making paired or group housing work. He said facility design, ventilation, and drainage become even more important for paired or grouped calves. Raising calves together also requires a different managerial skillset. Access to labor is another consideration, along with how milk will be fed. Options include mob feeders, acidified milk feeders, or autofeeders. Of course, maternity care, colostrum management, and herd health must all be up to par, regardless of the calf housing used.

Overall, James said dairies can achieve a win-win when it comes to welfare considerations that address consumer concerns. Beyond the social benefits of group housing, if more milk can be fed to calves in these systems, improved growth rates can help calves reach their genetic potential. Better record keeping allows for proactive calf management, and healthier calves with less morbidity and mortality loss means dairies can raise the number of calves needed without spending money raising extra replacements.

To learn more, watch the October Hoard’s Dairyman webinar, titled “Feeding the calves of today and tomorrow.” This webinar was sponsored by Agri-Plastics.

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(c) Hoard's Dairyman Intel 2023

October 26, 2023

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