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When is the best time to introduce a calf to group housing?

Kathleen Shore Published on 19 September 2012

Group housing in the calf barn has become an efficient way to house and manage dairy calves. Since our Grober Young Animal Development Center opened its doors in 2009, there has been a dedicated effort to demonstrating the benefits of raising these young animals in groups; some of those benefits include improved growth performance during weaning and post-weaning.

Those particular benefits were uncovered in calves grouped right from the start. However, could there an advantage to housing calves individually to start out and then moving them into a group setting to maximize performance and also satisfy their innate need to socialize?

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There are many arguments for the right age a calf should be introduced into a group. For instance, a common recommendation on-farm is to wait three to five days postpartum to ensure the suckling reflex is strong and that the calf remains healthy.

Many calf diseases that lead to scouring appear within the first week of life but can take up to 10 days to appear. Academic research found that moving calves into groups just before weaning was advantageous as compared to six days after weaning because there was less incidence of pneumonia.

The incidence of disease is often discussed in relation to group housing. Our research has found that individually housed calves cost more in terms of treatment costs compared to group-housed calves.

Further findings found that while there was a slight increase (not statistically significant) in the number of health events when calves were grouped in pens of six or 11, there was no difference in total bodyweight gain over the milk-fed period (zero to eight weeks).

Moreover, there was less mortality in the pens of six than there was in individual pens. With these various findings in mind, is there an advantage to letting a newborn calf rest, drink and grow in an individual pen for a certain period of time before introducing them to a group?

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If so, at what age does this prove most advantageous to the calf to optimize growth and health – day 0, day 3, day 10 or at the start of weaning?

To unravel this mystery, 50 Holstein dairy heifers were introduced to our research center in July 2011. Calves were randomly assigned to a treatment in groups of 10.

Ten calves were moved into their group immediately, 10 calves were moved at day 3, 10 calves were moved at day 10, 10 calves were

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moved at the start of weaning and 10 calves remained in individual housing. All calves were fed a 26/18 milk replacer (mildly acidified) at a rate of 150 g per liter (5.4 oz per quart) to a total of 9 liters (9.5 quarts) offered per day.

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Final results demonstrated that the calves moved at weaning were heavier and had a greater average daily gain (see Figure 1) . However, there was

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enough variation in bodyweights that there was no statistical difference (see Table 1) .

Total milk replacer intake was different between groups (p = 0.0643), such that calves moved at weaning consumed the highest volume of milk replacer, followed by individually housed calves.

Those same calves also consumed the most starter, whereas the calves moved at day 3 consumed the least starter (see Figure 2) .

The higher intakes of milk replacer and starter by individually penned calves and those introduced to group housing at weaning were not reflected in

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significantly higher bodyweight gains; furthermore, when the feed-to-gain ratio was evaluated as well as the cost per kg of gain, these two groups proved less efficient (it took more milk to gain the same amount) and more costly (see Figure 3) .

These results depict some distinct advantages to keeping calves in individual housing for a period of time postpartum. Moving calves after weaning was not evaluated, but other research did find this management approach to be detrimental to calf health.

Moving calves at weaning did prove successful from a feed intake and growth perspective; however, those calves were a little less efficient as shown with cost per kg of gain.

Furthermore, moving calves at weaning could prove expensive because for a short period of time you need a different method of feeding milk to a group of calves, rather than individually.

It was really the calves that moved after 10 days that experienced the most efficient rate of gain.As for the overall health of these calves, there was no difference in the incidence of disease between the groups. PD

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

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Kathleen Shore

Director of Nutrition,
QA and Technical Services
Grober Nutrition Inc.

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