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Embracing change: Tips for transitioning calves to group housing

Brandon Sowder for Progressive Dairyman Published on 06 November 2018
Calf pens

Change. Not many people like it. In fact, there are hundreds of books, podcasts and seminars all dedicated to the topic of “embracing change.”

But as averse as humans are to change, there’s one group that hates it even more. Your calves.

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Transitioning calves from individual housing to group housing is a big change that can cause a lot of stress. Housing changes can make calves more susceptible to disease challenges, which can trigger gaps in growth and development.

A smooth housing transition starts with advance preparation. Here are a few tips to help calves through the change to group housing.

Developing the rumen

A successful transition from hutches to group housing doesn’t start on moving day; it begins the day the calf is born. What you feed calves from day one to weaning will help support growth and health as they enter a new environment.

One key to transition success is rumen development. A well-developed rumen increases feed efficiency to ensure calves continue growing, even during times of stress like housing transitions.

Feeding dry feeds introduces bacteria into the rumen to initiate the fermentation process. Fermentation converts starch to volatile fatty acids, which in turn stimulate rumen papillae growth – the key to feed efficiency. Kick-start rumen development by providing high-quality starter feed on day two of life, and gradually increase the amount until calves are consuming 3 pounds per day.

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Know when to wean

Many farmers want to move calves into group housing as quickly as possible since individually housed, pre-weaned calves are at the most expensive phase of a calf’s life, averaging $5.84 per calf per day. Those costs go down significantly in the post-weaning phase when calves are moved to group housing and transition to a forage-based diet.

However, if you move calves too early, you risk disease challenges and reduced growth, which could put your up-front investment in danger.

There isn’t a magic spreadsheet to tell you when to wean calves, but there are a couple benchmarks to help you determine what’s best for your calves and your bottom line.

The first benchmark is growth. What are your weight and height growth goals? The Dairy Calf and Heifer Association’s Gold Standards indicate calves should at least double their birthweight and achieve 4 to 5 inches of height growth between birth and weaning.

Measuring and weighing calves both at birth and weaning is therefore the best way to know if calves are ready for group housing.

The second benchmark is starter intake. Calves should consume at least 2 to 3 pounds of starter for three days in a row before beginning the weaning process. Low starter intakes in individual housing can cause a post-weaning growth gap when calves are moved to group housing and adjust to an all-dry-feed diet.

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Manage stress factors

A move to group housing is extremely stressful on calves. Compound that with transitioning from a milk diet to a forage-based diet, and calves can struggle. Avoid the post-weaning slump by spreading out stress factors.

Keep calves in individual hutches for seven to 14 days post-weaning. This gives them time to recover from weaning stressors before moving to group housing. Monitor feed and water intake during this time. Keep calves on the same starter diet for one week post-weaning.

Then mix weaned calf grain or grower with starter feed for another week for a smooth transition. Calves should consume 5 to 6 pounds of feed per day before they’re ready to leave individual hutches.

Avoid mixing housing transitions with other stress factors like diet changes, vaccinations, dehorning or instances of inclement weather.

Group hutches

Consider giving calves a more relaxed and gradual transition with group hutches. Group hutches are similar to an individual hutch or pen and can make the transition from individual to group housing less traumatic.

Group hutches also allow smaller calves to catch up before having to compete with other animals for feed. Calves can be divided into smaller sub-groups of four to six calves based on size. Smaller groups allow for more individualized attention, letting you move calves on to group pens only when they’re ready. Keep calves in group hutches for a minimum of two weeks before moving them to group pens.

Monitor calves for health challenges during this time. Also watch to make sure calves are eating and drinking, since group hutches make monitoring individual feed intakes difficult. Move calves that are not eating or are being crowded out of the feedbunk to a smaller, less competitive group and observe them for health issues. If calves are thriving after two weeks in group hutches, then you know it’s time to transition them to group pens.

Ready to move

At this point, calves should be well prepared for transition and past most risks associated with a group housing move. This means it’s time to make a moving plan. To start, ask yourself these questions:

  • Are you moving calves with a trailer or with gates?
  • Will you move them before or after feeding?
  • Is the new pen bedded?
  • Does the pen have food and water available?

Having a plan in place for these decisions will help ensure a smooth moving day.

Also keep consistency in mind when setting up the new pen environment. Anything you can do to maintain a similar pen layout to what calves are accustomed to can help them adjust more quickly. This could include things like waterer and feedbunk placement, and a similar feeding schedule between group hutches and group housing.

Maintain a maximum of eight to 10 calves per pen to avoid overcrowding and 18 to 22 inches of bunk space to minimize competition between calves.

Change is hard, but the transition to group housing doesn’t have to be. Work with your local calf housing specialists to develop a plan for smooth housing transitions.  end mark

PHOTO: Ensure adequate bunk space so calves aren’t competing for feed. Photo courtesy of Calf-Tel.

References omitted but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

Brandon Sowder
  • Brandon Sowder

  • Director of Sales
  • Calf-Tel
  • Email Brandon Sowder

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