Current Progressive Dairy digital edition
Advertisement

Group housing for pre-weaned calves: Research on health outcomes

Betsy Karle for Progressive Dairy Published on 19 May 2022

Research is generally mixed on the feasibility of group housing for pre-weaned calves, especially relative to calf health.

Data from our studies on respiratory disease in calves showed a trend of increased health risk for group-housed calves, especially in groups larger than seven calves. Other studies indicate improved weight gain and feed intake in group-housed calves, and many studies have shown positive effects in paired housing systems, with two calves housed together. With this in mind, our team of University of California researchers set out to test the health and performance effects of housing three calves together in a small group system.

advertisement

advertisement

We studied two different systems in different geographic regions of California: one utilizing plastic hutches with an exercise area and one using elevated wooden “California-style” hutches.

Plastic hutch system: To make group pens, three plastic hutches with a wire-panel-fenced outside area that measured approximately 6 feet by 12 feet were assembled. Six-inch sections of wire panel were added between each of the three hutches. Individual pens were a traditional plastic hutch plus a 4-feet-by-6-feet exercise area. Hutches were bedded with rice hulls.

Wooden hutch system: To make group pens, the dividers were removed from a traditional elevated three-calf wooden hutch with a wooden-slatted floor. Jersey calves were utilized in this system, and individually housed calves were in elevated wooden hutches with the dividers in place. No bedding was used.

Performance outcomes

In the plastic hutch system, height and weight were measured at birth and when calves were moved out of the hutches one week prior to being fully weaned, at approximately 70 days old. We recorded observations of calf health using fecal and respiratory disease scoring systems daily before feeding. Calves were observed for one hour post feeding with their behavior being recorded on 10-minute intervals. Cross-sucking was observed minimally in both groups (individually housed calves could reach their neighbors) and was not perceived to be frequent enough to be concerning. Statistically, the group-housed and individually housed calves performed the same in terms of average daily gain (ADG) in weight and height and signs of respiratory disease. All calves experienced diarrhea at some point, so comparisons between the housing structures were not possible. Group-housed calves were observed to have greater frequency of concentrate feeding in the hour after feeding as compared to those individually housed.

Interestingly, from a social standpoint, group-housed calves in the plastic hutch system nearly always rested together in a single hutch, even though there were three hutches available. During the study period, outside air temperatures exceeded 100ºF, as is typical in California’s Central Valley, but this did not seem to deter calves from preferring close contact with one another while resting in the hour after feeding.

advertisement

051722 pd web karle group housing 1

In the wooden hutch system, results were much more variable. For this study, calves were fitted with leg sensors to monitor activity. The group-housed calves laid down less than the individually housed calves, averaging 29 minutes less than their individually housed counterparts. Group-housed calves had significantly higher rates of respiratory disease in this system. Diarrhea rates were similar to those in the plastic hutch system – nearly all calves experienced diarrhea during the pre-weaning period with no difference between groups. Social play behavior was observed at a higher rate among group-housed calves. As in the plastic hutch system, the frequency of concentrate feeding was also greater for the group-housed calves compared to those housed individually.

Bottom line

So, should you implement group housing for your calves? It depends. We still have a lot to learn when it comes to group housing calves effectively. Data were highly variable in our studies on two different dairies, and there is no magic formula for what will work across all calf-raising systems. Some dairies have great success in large pre-weaning groups, while others find that individual housing is what works for them.

As we look into the future, it will be important to consider the social aspects of consumer-driven legislation, especially as it relates to the way we raise calves. Group housing is already mandated in some situations, and we would be wise to consider how we will adapt if it becomes necessary to implement. Balancing animal welfare and animal health requires a delicate balance of nutrition, management and infrastructure. The systems presented here are simple and cost-effective ways to modify existing pens to house small groups.

While there is no simple answer, these studies provide insight that can inform potential alternative housing system decisions for pre-weaned calves. Regardless of the system, many studies have shown that a high plane of nutrition for pre-weaned calves is imperative for positive health outcomes, emphasizing the need to work with your herd management consultants and veterinarians to set your calves up for success. There is much more work to be done to more fully understand the “best” way to implement group housing, and every dairy needs to fully evaluate their calf-raising system to strike the appropriate balance for overall animal well-being.  end mark

PHOTO 1: We still have a lot to learn when it comes to group housing calves effectively. Data were highly variable in our studies on two different dairies, and there is no magic formula for what will work across all calf-raising systems. Some dairies have great success in large pre-weaning groups, while others find that individual housing is what works for them.

advertisement

PHOTO 2: From a social standpoint, group-housed calves in the plastic hutch system nearly always rested together in a single hutch, even though there were three hutches available. Photos provided by Betsy Karle.

Betsy Karle
  • Betsy Karle

  • Glenn County Director
  • University of California
  • Cooperative Extension
  • Area Dairy Adviser
  • Northern Sacramento Valley
  • Email Betsy Karle

LATEST BLOG

LATEST NEWS