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Calf housing: Automatic group feeders vs. individual pens

Courtney Halbach and Rebecca Brotzman Published on 22 May 2015

pen calf feeders

As producers move away from hutches and look into building new or remodeling an existing barn to house nursing calves, they have the opportunity to consider two housing management strategies: automatic group feeders or individual pens. There are pros and cons to both types of management systems which need to be considered when deciding which is right for your farm.



No matter how you decide to house your nursing calves, success begins with excellent pre-fresh cow and heifer care, clean maternity pens and attentive newborn care, including prompt removal from the adult cow environment, navel dipping and colostrum feeding.

The timely delivery of an appropriate quantity of quality, clean colostrum is essential for providing passive immunity to calves, which is especially important for those raised in groups.

Although the “gold standard” housing choice for disease control in nursing calves is still an outdoor individual hutch, careful management and proper barn design can help make nursery barns for either individually or group-housed calves successful. There are a few housing principles that are paramount for healthy calf barns.

Barn layouts need to provide a minimum of approximately 35 square feet of bedded area per calf in group pens and 30 square feet in individual pens. Producers often report drier beds, healthier calves and better growth rates when group-housed nursing calves have even more space.

Group housing allows calves to socialize and play freely in a group setting and to suckle the nozzle between feedings – also a natural behavior. However, plentiful space for calves to live in becomes even more important in group housing, as there is no physical barrier to help prevent the spread of disease and because bedding is more quickly soiled with increased volumes of liquid consumed per calf.


All-in/all-out management of group and individual pen calf barns can help break disease cycles by separating older from younger calves in both time and space to lessen the risk of young calves picking up pathogens shed by older animals.

Clean, deep, dry bedding allows calves to “nest” and trap a layer of warm air around themselves to reduce heat loss as well as lower airborne bacterial counts. Sloped concrete and floors with a gravel draining base improve the removal of moisture from the calf’s environment, extending the insulating lifetime of the bedding and decreasing humidity for improved air hygiene in any calf barn.

Proper ventilation that is draft-free, preferably achieved through natural ventilation with supplemental positive-pressure tubes, helps ensure good air hygiene for aiding in the prevention of respiratory disease.

Automatic group feeders not only allow for greater volumes of milk or replacer to be fed per day but also a more natural frequency and distribution of milk meals. Producers have automated control over how much milk or replacer each calf receives, thus removing the potential for human error, making changes in volume delivery easier through the course of a calf’s stay in the nursery and automatically scheduling weaning.

On the other hand, a high stocking density relative to machine availability results in inadequate time for all calves to nurse, which can lead to cross-sucking. The less expensive machines need more frequent attention for filling and do not have data recording or self-cleaning capabilities.

Also, not all machines can serve every nipple simultaneously, reducing the time available to feed calves at each station. Mixing problems due to inaccurate calibration and problems with milk replacer clumping result in inconsistent delivery of milk or replacer, which can lead to increased incidence of cross-sucking as well as scours and other diseases.


Inadequate cleaning of the machines, either due to inadequate maintenance or even water quality problems, is also a major culprit of disease in group-housed nursery calves. While many feeders tout an ability to serve 25 or more calves per group, increased group size means less time available per calf to nurse and greater risk of exposure to potentially more sick calves. Producers often find smaller group sizes to be more rewarding for calf health and growth.

Computerized data collection with automated feeders gathers useful information, such as changes in feeding behavior, for monitoring calf health. However, calves do not always change their feeding behavior when they get sick, so caretakers must remain vigilant in personally monitoring calf health visually, as they do with individual calf housing.

Using individual pens to house calves can solve many of the concerns regarding spread of disease that can be problematic with group housing. Sick calves may be easier to pick out in individual pens with screening done at each feeding, with restraint for examination and treatment more easily accomplished if necessary.

The issue of socialization can be somewhat resolved by placing calves in pairs by removing a panel between two pens after the period of highest disease risk has passed, perhaps after 2 or 3 weeks old or even waiting until much closer to or after weaning.

Labor management differs between automatic group feeders and individual pens. Total time spent is about the same for both systems, but how that time is spent differs. With individual pens, chores are mostly focused on feeding and cleaning up after each calf. However, the labor associated with automatic group feeders is spent more on monitoring, managing health and watching performance on a more flexible schedule.

Knowing the risks and benefits of housing calves in groups versus individual pens, as well as the labor involved, can help determine the right management fit for your operation. More information about calf barn design and housing options can be found on the Dairyland Initiative website. PD

Courtney Halbach is an associate instructional specialist with the Dairyland Initiative at the University of Wisconsin. You can contact her by email. Rebecca Brotzman is an associate outreach specialist with the Dairyland Initiative at the University of Wisconsin.