Sponsored By
American Agriculturist Logo

Is group calf housing right for your operation?

Group housing with automatic feeding systems still requires lots of management.

March 12, 2020

4 Min Read
Calves in pens at a dairy farm
MANAGING CALF GROUPS: Group calf housing, often in combination with automatic feeding systems, is increasingly being adopted on farms. There are challenges to these systems, though, and farmer management is still crucial. Bob Rowan/Getty Images

Individually housing and feeding preweaned calves is the most common calf management system on dairy farms. This system decreases calf-to-calf contact, reducing the risk of disease transmission between animals, a practice that has been shown to decrease incidences of calf mortality and morbidity.

In recent years there has been growing interest in group calf housing facilities, often in combination with automatic feeding systems. Interest in these group housing, automatic feeding systems are being driven by a combination of labor costs and availability, and animal welfare concerns (greater freedom of movement and social interaction for calves in group housing).

An additional benefit of some of these automatic feeding systems is that they can provide the dairy farmer information on individual calf milk intake, drinking speed, number of feeding bouts and weight gain to better monitor and manage calf health.

As with individual calf housing systems, group calf housing systems come with their challenges and proper management is key to their success. Best management practices that apply to individually housed calves — 4 to 6 quarts of good-quality colostrum in the first 24 hours of life, clean dry bedding, monitoring calves for scours and other health problems — still apply to calves managed in group housing systems.

If you’re considering a group calf housing system on your farm, consider the following questions:

When should calves be placed in a group pen?

Some dairy producers may be interested in automatic feeding systems with the idea that they will never need to individually feed calves again.

In a study of 38 dairy farms in the Upper Midwest using automatic calf feeding systems, only a quarter of farms introduced calves to the automatic feeder on Day 1. On average for these farms, calves were 5 days old when introduced to the group housing, with some farms not placing calves into group pens until 14 days of age.

A Canadian study also found 5 days old as the average age for calves to enter the group housing system. Five days of age may or may not be the correct age to place calves into a group housing system on each farm, so farm staff should observe the calves to ensure they are actively sucking and are healthy prior to entering the group calf pen.

Even if you’re considering implementing groups pens, you should include space for individually housing calves for the first several days of life.

How should calves be added to a group pen?

Once you have an idea of when you want calves to enter the group calf pen, the next step is to decide how calves will be placed.

Options include all-in, all-out systems and continuous entry systems.

All-in, all-out systems provide an opportunity for pens to be cleaned prior to new calves entering the pen. This system works well on larger dairy farms with enough calves being born over a relatively short time to fill a pen with a uniform group of animals.

Continuous entry systems may work better for smaller herds that don’t have enough calves to form a group being born in a short time period. With continuous entry systems there is not a clear time to clean and disinfect calf pens, creating a possible health risk factor.

In a Danish study, calves raised in all-in, all-out pens had higher average daily gain and lower incidence of diarrhea and respiratory disease than calves in continuous entry systems.

What is the appropriate number of calves to house in a pen?

Calf feeders can easily feed 25 to 30 calves per nipple with the option of multiple nipples per feeder. The previously mentioned Midwest study found an average 18 calves per pen with a range of six to 60 calves per pen. A Swedish study found that pens with 12 to 18 calves had greater incidence of respiratory disease and slower average daily gain than did calves housed in smaller groups.

How much space does each calf need?

In the Midwest study, the average space per calf was 50 square feet, with a range of 17 to 128 square foot per calf. Recommendations range from 40 to 50 square feet of space per calf.

Pens with less area per calf will require more frequent cleaning and the addition of bedding to keep pens comfortable and clean, and to reduce risk of disease.

What else needs to be considered?

Having an automatic feeding system does not mean that management is no longer required. In some cases, the time saved on feeding calves may be taken up doing other things (pen cleaning, adding bedding, reviewing calf data, cleaning feeders) that are required to make these systems work effectively.

Haan is a Penn State dairy Extension educator.

Source: Penn State Cooperative Extension, which is solely responsible for the information provided and is wholly owned by the source. Informa Business Media and all its subsidiaries are not responsible for any of the content contained in this information asset.

Subscribe to receive top agriculture news
Be informed daily with these free e-newsletters

You May Also Like