Revisiting pair and group housing

By CS McConnel, Veterinary Medicine Extension & John Wenz, Field Disease Investigation Unit

According to the 2020 American Dairy Science Association’s 4th edition of the Guide for the Care and Use of Agricultural Animals in Research and Teaching, commonly known as the Ag Guide, “Calves should be kept in full social contact with at least one other calf for the majority of the milk-feeding period.” That statement has generated a lot of discussion amongst us here within the WSU Field Disease Investigation Unit.

Clearly, calf disease is usually caused by a combination of factors—not just housing type. That said, raising healthy calves in pairs or groups has specific challenges. During the AABP 2022 Recent Graduate Conference, Dr. Knauer at the University of Minnesota provided an outline for dairy calf housing strategies to maximize welfare and meet producer goals. She highlighted the following for large group housing:

  1. Overwhelming evidence suggests that an older age at introduction benefits the calf. However, early introduction requires less feeding labor overall (e.g., less individual feeding), so it is an option for some producers, but they should be aware of the calf training needs and individualized attention needed for successful introduction.
  2. If possible, an “all-in-all-out” strategy should be used to manage calves’ entry to and movement from the weaned calf pen.
  3. Though not feasible on many large farms utilizing automatic feeding and social housing during the pre-weaning period, small groups (< 8-10 calves/group) are overwhelmingly more successful than large groups.
  4. Cross sucking is one of the biggest behavioral challenges associated with social housing that can have detrimental effects to heifer longevity in the milking herd through heifer mastitis and blind quarters at first calving. One way to mitigate cross sucking is to eliminate its development through milk feeding practices that result in satisfied, satiated (and tired!) calves.
  5. Protocols should be developed to monitor bacterial counts, machine or milk feeding equipment cleaning, and as-fed total solids level.
  6. Weaning can be a particularly difficult time for calves housed in large groups if careful attention to step-down and grain feeding is not taken, particularly when large amounts of milk are being offered. Full weaning from milk should be delayed until 8 or 9 weeks of age, which will allow more time to adequately increase starter intake, leading to rumen development.

Dr. Knauer also identified considerations that should be taken into account for pair housing specifically:

  1. The benefits of pairing are most evident when the pair is formed prior to 3 weeks of age.
  2. The pair can be created in a variety of ways, depending upon feeding management, facilities / infrastructure already available, and producer goals. Recommendations are for a minimum of 35ft2 (3.3m2) of resting space per calf, which correlates to approximately 2 hutches or 2 calf pens per pair.
  3. Feeding a milk allowance of ≥6qts(L)/day through a nipple (nipple bucket or bottle) should be considered as a best practice when calves are housed in a pair. This feeding method increases the amount of time it takes a calf to consume her milk meal as compared to bucket feeding, which has several important implications related to cross sucking.

Additional information can be found through the University of Wisconsin regarding pair or group housing of dairy calves. Dr. Van Os has created a very useful starter guide for pairing or group-housing preweaned dairy calves. The guide provides important considerations that unfortunately are not addressed in the Ag Guide 4th ed. Our primary takeaway from the WI articles is that social housing for calves is not for every farm. Success with social housing is realized on operations where calves are well-managed and appropriately fed, with low exposure and high resistance to risk factors contributing to morbidity and mortality. In other words, farms that are successful at transitioning to social housing tend to be those farm that are already doing an excellent job managing individually housed calves.