Options for implementing pair or group housing for raising calves on farms are shown at the PDPW Calf Care Connection workshop Nov. 21 in Fennimore, Wisconsin.
Options for implementing pair or group housing for raising calves on farms are shown at the PDPW Calf Care Connection workshop Nov. 21 in Fennimore, Wisconsin. PHOTO BY DANIELLE NAUMAN
    FENNIMORE, Wis. – Animal welfare has become an increasingly important concern for conscientious consumers.
    Dr. Jennifer Van Os, an assistant professor and extension specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Dairy Science, spoke at the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin Calf Care Connection Nov. 21 in Fennimore about the value of housing calves in social groups both for the calves’ well-being and public perception.
    “Talking about animal welfare, even though it’s something that producers have always been tuned into whether or not it has been called that, is something that is really good to bring to the forefront and be proud of,” Van Os said.
    Expectations of animal care has affected the dairy industry. Van Os illustrated how consumer questions influence the marketing and purchasing of corporate buyers, milk marketers and ultimately dairy producers.
    “I think animal welfare is something that is really key to the future viability and sustainability of our dairy industry,” Van Os said. “Part of that equation is about whether or not we can maintain public trust. Some consumers have questions about environmental impact, and some have questions about how those animals are cared for.”
    Van Os said the terms animal rights and animal welfare are often muddled.
    “The only thing the two have in common is that people with those viewpoints think that human beings have some kind of direct ethical obligation towards animals,” Van Os said. “People who believe in animal rights think that animals have intrinsic rights, and because of that we shouldn’t be using them for production or biomedical research. The goal of animal rights is to end animal agriculture. Animal welfare refers to the idea that we do care about animals having a good quality of life. We can use animals for certain purposes, but while they are under our care we have a responsibility to them. Those two things are very different.”
    Van Os said there are three aspects of animal welfare: the overall health of the animal along with their behavior and how they experience positive and negative feelings and experiences in their environment.
    “One of the things that influences how an animal feels isn’t just her health status, but also is she able to do things that are important for her species and her life stage?” Van Os said. “Really understanding the nature of a cow, calf or heifer and what kinds of behaviors are important for her to perform.”
    Van Os said there are things to be learned about animal behavior from studying the differences in the ways we house calves.
    The practice of housing calves individually stems from past research showing that isolating calves can help decrease disease transfer and calf morbidity. Van Os said there are other factors to consider, including better ventilation in calf-raising facilities and improved nutrition for dairy calves, that can help mitigate those concerns.
    “Isolating calves isn’t the only way to achieve good health outcomes,” Van Os said. “If we look at trends world wide, we see that pair and group housing has become common in other places.”
    Van Os said research shows some of the beneficial outcomes of social housing include an increase in play behavior which helps calves learn to interact appropriately. When calves learn appropriate behavior at a young age, the training leads the animals to have a higher social rank in the herd as adults while also being less aggressive.
    “Studies have found that calves that were raised with social companions have better cognitive development, showing more flexibility in their behaviors and are more adaptable to things,” Van Os said. “This helped them to be more resilient in the face of stress.”
    According to Van Os, studies also reveal that calves reared in pair or group housing have shown increased solid feed intakes and higher rates of weight gain.
    “It is a win for animal welfare and a win for calf performance,” Van Os said. “The third potential win is that studies suggest that social rearing of calves could also lead to better public acceptance. This could be a piece to the puzzle of maintaining the consumer base and reassuring the public that dairy farm practices align with their values.”
     Van Os sited a survey conducted by the University of Minnesota at the Minnesota State Fair of 1,300 adults not involved in the dairy industry but most being consumers of dairy products. In the study, people were shown photos in a random order of calves housed individually and in pairs or groups. The participants were asked how acceptable each type of housing was.
    One-third thought individual housing was acceptable, but one-half thought it was not an acceptable form of housing. For pair housing, 14% did not think it an acceptable form of housing, and 7% did not like group housing.
    “It is a simplistic study, but it is the first study that shows that social housing might also be important for this consumer buy-in,” Van Os said. “It could potentially be this win-win-win story of calf development and welfare, calf performance and also public acceptance.”
    Van Os acknowledges that changing calf housing on the farm is sometimes easier said than done, requiring a shift not only in management but also in facilities. She encourages dairy farmers to consider options for their farms.
    “When people hear group housing, they tend to think of large groups with autofeeders,” Van Os said. “But, it could also be smaller groups with manual feeding using individual pails or bottles. There are also options outdoors with some producers using superhutches to house pairs or small groups. Producers who have existing individual hutches can do pair housing by moving those hutches next to each other and then adjusting the fence so the calves share that area. It’s not about putting two calves in the space of one but coming up with creative ways to use what you already have.”
    Van Os said because raising calves individually is more forgiving in terms of the spread of disease, there are benchmarks to consider before making the move to group housing. Studies suggest that if you have a calf mortality rate of less than 5% and you are at less than 5% failure of passive transfer, you might encounter fewer issues making the transition to social housing.
    Ensuring adequate space for the number of calves in the housing situation and access to clean, dry bedding along with proper ventilation and sanitation are things to consider when thinking about making the transition. Van Os recommends being able to do all-in, all-out when utilizing group housing.