Two’s company…is group housing the more efficient way to rear calves?

There has been a lot of discussion recently in regards to whether to group or individually house neonatal calves. The trend has been to put calves into individual pens, with individual hutches being particularly popular. The main reason for this trend was down to health and disease control, however, recent research has evidence to the contrary, suggesting that pair housing of neonatal calves may indeed improve both growth and welfare by encouraging greater feed intake, development of normal social behaviours, and by reducing stress and helping with weight gain at the time of weaning.

Group housing is becoming more popular and I for one am fully behind it. Calves are social animals and should be treated as such. As far as disease control is concerned there is little evidence to prove the individually housed calves are healthier than those paired or in groups of three or more, providing husbandry is of a good standard. Research by the University of Florida and the University of Guelph found that pair housed calves had significantly higher solid feed intakes during the milk feeding stage than individually housed calves. This trend also continued during the weaning phase, during weaning the calves continued to consume more dry matter (460 g per day vs. 200 g per day) and had greater average daily gain than the individually housed calves (0.67 kg per day vs. 0.41 kg per day).

It has also been documented that calves reared in isolation suffer from learning difficulties and are less able to cope with novel situations. It has been shown that calves that are individually housed prior to weaning prefer to eat solo post weaning, which can have implications for herd management, and could lead to reduced feed intake and stress. Calves that are pair housed from birth continue to prefer to eat socially post weaning. Jensen, et al found that calves paired socially and on enhanced milk-feeding programmes, responded greater to social stimuli than those with low allowances of milk, and thus increased their starter intakes even more

In terms of when calves should be paired, research has found that the sooner a calf can be paired the greater the DMI and cognitively are more able to cope in different environments.

 

How can calf performance be optimised if the system is already geared up to individually house calves?

There are many things that can be done to change individual housing to group housing, for example if individual hutches are used, two hutches can be pushed together and the middle section removed, creating a twin set up, or alternatively the divider in-between individual pens could be removed, as demonstrated below.

If you are considering moving from individual housing to group housing I would recommend to house individually to train/monitor them for the first few days of life, then paired or moved into small groups of 4/5 (feeders often have 5 compartments), however it will depend on the age difference between calves, do not mix a new-born calf with a calf of 3 weeks old. As with all management systems calves must be monitored closely and excellent hygiene practices enforced, and any ill calves should be removed.

To conclude

  • Pair housing calves from birth can set up positive feeding patterns.
  • These positive feeding patterns can persist after weaning.
  • Greater DMI and ADG both prior to and during weaning occur when calves are pair housed from birth.

References

Miller-Cushon, E.K. and DeVries, T.J., 2016. Effect of social housing on the development of feeding behavior and social feeding preferences of dairy calves. J. Dairy Sci. 99: 1-12.

Meagher et al., 2015. PLoS ONE 10(8): e0132828

Jensen, M.B., Duve, L.R., and Weary, D.M., 2015. Pair housing and enhanced milk allowance increase play behaviour and improve performance in dairy calves. J. Dairy Sci. 98: 2568-2575.

 

Jess Charlton
Calf Specialist

Follow Jess on Twitter @charltoncalf1

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