Producers share insight into calf group housing

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The Dairy Calf and Heifer Association held its annual conference April 11-13 in Prior Lake, Minnesota, bringing together youngstock producers and industry experts from around the country. One of the panel discussions, which featured three producers from across the Midwest, focused on group housing. Following are a few insights shared during that session.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison said many of the health concerns we see in calves reflect problems in colostrum management, hygiene and sanitation practices, nutrition, housing strategies (ventilation), or preventive care and monitoring.
Recent literature reviews conducted by researchers from the University of Kentucky and the University of British Columbia have concluded housing calves in pair or small group housing can improve animal welfare, calf growth and consumer perception.
Calves are social animals and appear to thrive with companionship. They “play” more and are more active when group housed with more space. Calves raised with companions also show greater adaptability to change, including weaning and future larger group moves. Pair- or group-housed calves will try new feeds and consume starter grain sooner. The end results often include increased feed intake, greater average daily gain and a heavier bodyweight at weaning. These results are corroborated by research and were reiterated by the producer panelists at the DCHA meeting.
Although many farms manage large groups of calves with good health outcomes, research has shown larger group sizes are a risk factor for health issues. UW-Madison researchers suggest pairs or groups of up to six to eight calves might have lower incidence of respiratory disease or diarrhea than groups of 15 calves or more. Most of the panelists had smaller groups of calves with some of this dictated by their feeding arrangements, such as a nine-calf headlock feeding system.
The age at which calves enter pair or group housing typically ranges from the day of birth to about 3 weeks of age. This range was represented among the producers on the panel with a variety of facility and management considerations. Farms that choose to group calves on the day of birth report lower infrastructure costs for individual pens. Other farms choose to house calves individually for the first few days of life. Some farms wait until calves are drinking milk vigorously before moving them to a group. Other farms prefer to wait until after the peak of scours on their farm, which generally occurs within the first 3 weeks of life. Work with your calf advisory team on the best age to pair calves on your farm.
To minimize health risks and feed competition, the age gap within a group should be minimized. This can be a challenge in smaller herds with fewer calves born each week. Experts recommend the youngest and oldest calf in a group differ by no more than 14 days of age but ideally by seven days or fewer. Achieving this tight age range was typically not an issue for the DCHA panel farms. In some cases, entire barns are filled in less than two weeks. The use of multiple barns sized according to your operation can work well for filling entire barns in short periods of time. This all-in-all-out strategy allows calves to stay in the same group until the last calf in the group is weaned, with the option of keeping calves in their original pens for a while after weaning. The group is then moved all at once, and the entire pen can sit empty between groups.     
An all-in-all-out system is certainly a biosecurity best management practice when achievable. This strategy makes for easy implementation of optimal sanitation protocols as well reducing the buildup of bacteria, viruses and other pathogens in the calves’ environment. Facilities on many farms tend to require a continuous flow. Good hygiene practices can still be achieved in these systems.
Bedding management is critical to preweaned calves as they spend most of their time lying down. Enough well-bedded space for each calf is essential. Expert recommendations for bedded resting space vary from 30 to 40 square feet per calf. Clean, dry bedding is important to create a comfortable, cushioned surface and promote calf hygiene. Moist environments harbor pathogens. Proper drainage can be part of the solution. Periodically removing bedding can also help keep pens clean and dry while also minimizing ammonia and improving air quality in the barns.
The DCHA panelists said they replace bedding in their group housing on a regular basis. In one case, the dairy never bedded on top of old bedding. Its pen configuration allows for easy movement of calves to the front or back half of the pens, which makes weekly cleaning and bed-ding efficient.
The DCHA panelists identified cross-sucking as a common concern. Excessive cross-sucking is thought to lead to frostbitten ears, navel infections, mastitis or udder damage. Strategies implemented by the panelists include slower nipples, keeping calves in headlocks for a few extra minutes post-feeding and adjusting feeding amounts.
Social housing for calves can improve dry feed intake preweaning and help improve overall weight gain during the transition from milk to dry feeds. Pair housing can be a simple solution for smaller farms. This can be accomplished by removing the partitions between individual pens or putting a common wire panel around two adjacent calf hutches. Pair or group housing of dairy calves can provide positive outcomes when attention is given to group size, cleanliness, proper nutrition and management.
    Barry Visser is a nutritionist for Vita Plus.

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