Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

Group-feeding calves for an organic dairy production system

Brad Heins Published on 11 March 2014

group-feeding calves on an organic dairy

Dairy replacement feeding and management systems have undergone major evolution in the last 25 to 30 years. As herd sizes increased, individual hutches were introduced to protect calves from contaminated and overcrowded environments.



Recently, higher levels of milk feeding are recommended to promote early growth, and now some farmers are adopting extended suckling until calves are weaned.

Group calf-rearing offers opportunities to reduce labor and to aid in socializing calves, but performance of group-managed calves in enlarged hutches is not well documented in an organic dairy production system.

The maintenance of health and growth of organic dairy calves is very important in their first few months of life. As no organic milk replacers are available, whole milk from high-somatic-cell organic cows, as well as bulk tank milk, must be fed.

The cost versus benefits of milk consumption and weaning age is very important and has not been researched with organic dairy calves.

Maintaining the health and growth of dairy calves is very important in their first few months of life. For the University of Minnesota’s organic dairy, whole milk from high-somatic-cell organic cows as well as bulk tank milk is fed to calves in enlarged hutches.


By using whole milk, the casein in milk will clot and provide nutrition throughout the day for calves fed once per day, which has been our management style for many years.

Successful group feeding of organic dairy calves is enhanced with aggressive suckling during infancy and early consumption of high-quality organic calf starter.

We have an ongoing research study at our organic dairy to evaluate the growth, health and, most importantly, the economic performance of dairy calves fed once per day and weaned at different ages, which will be published in the Journal of Dairy Science in the future.

At our 240-cow dairy in western Minnesota, calves are separated at birth from their dams, housed indoors in individual pens and fed 2 liters of colostrum per 90 pounds of bodyweight two times per day for two days.

Calves that are healthy and aggressive are moved to group housing at 3 days old after the morning feeding. The pens or super-hutches for group housing include an indoor area (12 × 20 feet) bedded with organic wheat straw with an outside access space that measures 12 × 20 meters.

Groups of calves are fed with a 10-calf Skellerup peach teat feeder with 61-liter liquid volume capacity, which is washed and disinfected after each feeding. Calves are fed an organic calf starter beginning at 3 days old. Water is provided free-choice from 3 days old with Ritchie water fountains, and organic hay is provided free-choice at 3 weeks old.


There are advantages and challenges of feeding organic dairy calves, as well as conventional dairy calves, in a group feeding system.


• Labor for feeding calves is reduced; calves are socialized for group living.

• Group learning occurs (especially for early starter consumption).

• Calf growth is equal to individual housing.

• Adequate growth of 0.75 to 1.5 pounds per day may be achieved depending on milk feeding level.

• Calves are easier to bed and super-hutches are easier to clean than individual hutches.


• Calves must be aggressive drinkers when they are grouped.

• Weak calves must be separated.

• Calf attendant must be a good observer.

• If age spread is large, the oldest calves will have delayed weaning or youngest calves will be weaned too soon.

• Contagious disease may affect more calves.

• It is more difficult to provide individual attention.

Feeding organic dairy calves in a group management system

1. Separate newborns from fresh cows ASAP and hand-feed colostrum.

2. Train calf to drink from a firm nipple in an individual pen during colostrum feeding period.

3. Do not add a new calf to a group until it is a fast aggressive sucker. Most are ready by the third day. Consider calves less than 65 pounds to be at risk and to require careful observation, especially during winter.

4. Feed at least 1.5 percent of birthweight of high-quality milk. Calves fed less than 2 percent may have loose manure initially.

5. Restrict range of age and size within a group when possible. One-week range works well; more than three weeks increases milk feeding cost for the group as weaning is based on the youngest calf in the group.

6. A super-hutch works well for eight to 10 calves.

7. Leave the nipple feeder with the group so they suck the nipple instead of each other.

8. Provide abundant water, bedding and an outside exercise area.

9. Wean when group average starter intake is 2 pounds per day for three consecutive days.

10. Calves should be fed at the same time each day and preferably early in the day. PD

For more information on feeding organic dairy calves, contact Heins by email or phone at (320) 589-1711.

Challenges to group-feeding calves on an organic dairy include the spread of contagious diseases and inconsistency in weaning time for a group of calves with a large age spread. Photo courtesy of Brad Heins.

brad heins

Brad Heins
Assistant Professor
University of Minnesota West Central Research and Outreach Center