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Best time to pair-house calves? As soon as possible

Joao H. C. Costa Published on 30 October 2015
pair of dairy calves

Calves are routinely raised in single pens until weaning or even longer, but housing milk-fed calves in pairs or groups is increasing in popularity.

This, in part, is due to the availability of automatic feeders and the potential of reducing labour requirements per head.

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Recent research has also shown that group housing can provide many other advantages to both the calves and the farmer if managed well.

For example, group housing allows calves to perform social behaviours and provides more useable space. Research has also shown socially housed calves are “smarter” in a cognitively challenging task.

Socially housed calves eat more solid feed

Another benefit of raising milk-fed calves in groups is the increased solid feed intake before weaning; this benefit is especially clear when calves are fed higher volumes of milk.

The advantages of feeding calves more milk are becoming widely recognized. They include higher growth, less incidence of disease and higher milk production, particularly during the first lactation.

Feeding calves more milk, especially via a teat, helps satisfy the calf’s motivation to suck. This also provides a practical benefit for grouped calves as it reduces the risk of cross-sucking.

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Some producers fear that feeding increased amounts of milk will lead to reduced starter intake, making weaning more difficult.

It is true that hungry calves (for example, those fed just 4 litres of milk per day) will consume more calf starter before weaning, but young calves are not able to consume and digest sufficient quantities of starter to compensate for the low milk allowance, resulting in poor weight gains in these calves.

dairy calvesFeeding elevated amounts of milk (at least 8 litres per day) results in much higher weight gains before weaning, especially when milk rations are gradually reduced over the course of two weeks or more to motivate calves to eat solid feed.

A successful weaning program requires that dairy calves begin consuming solid feed early in life so that they reach appropriate levels of solid feed intake when milk is reduced around weaning.

When young calves are housed individually, they have little opportunity to learn how and what to eat from other animals. Grouped calves can take advantage of “social learning” to more quickly discover and make use of solid feed.

Recent research has shown that pair-housed calves have reduced behavioural responses to weaning and improved performance when mixed with a larger group after weaning. Housing young calves with an older, weaned companion further stimulates feeding behaviour and growth before and after weaning.

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On some farms, calves are housed individually for the first weeks of life and then paired or moved to a group around the time of weaning. A recent study undertaken by the animal welfare group at the University of British Columbia set out to determine if it the advantages of social rearing depend upon when dairy calves are first grouped.

Thirty-six calves were either housed individually, in pairs from birth (early paired) or at 6 weeks old (late-paired). The research team measured how much they ate and grew from birth to 10 weeks old.

The results pictured in Figure 1 showed that when calves were paired at birth, they ate more than the individually reared and late-paired calves.

solid food intakeAt 10 weeks old (two weeks after weaning), solid feed intake for early paired calves was 800 grams (about 1.8 pounds) more per day compared to individual and late-paired calves.

Also, calves in the early paired treatment showed significantly higher average daily gain over the experimental period: around 900 grams per day (about 2 pounds) versus 750 grams (about 1.6 pounds) per day for the individual and late-paired calves (see Figure 2).

average weight gainAnother study found no differences in intake and weight gains when calves were paired at birth or at 3 weeks old, but both were increased compared to individually housed calves.

In other words, the individually housed calves take longer to learn how to eat and have lower solid feed intakes at the time of weaning. These studies demonstrate dairy calves benefit from early social housing in terms of increased solid intakes and increased gains.

The results of a series of studies have shown the benefits to rearing milk-fed calves socially. These results also indicate that calves should be grouped early, ideally within the first three weeks of life.

How to manage grouped calves on your farm?

Although social contact provides benefits, this is one case where more is not better. In fact, many of the problems associated with grouping, including a higher risk of some health problems and more competition among the calves, are reduced when using small groups.

The results of a number of studies show that groups of less than eight calves are easiest to manage successfully. In much of our work at UBC, we have kept calves in the smallest group possible – a pair.

We recommend that producers interested in trying grouping on their farm start with pairs or triplets, using animals that are most similar in age. For some farms, a simple solution would be to remove the partitions between individual pens or hutches to create pairs.  PD

Click here to read a previous article from the University of British Columbia, which discusses the social benefits of group housing.

For more about this study, email Joao H. C. Costa, Marina von Keyserlingk or Dan Weary.

The study is published in the Journal of Dairy Science

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

PHOTO 1: In much of our work at UBC, we have kept calves in the smallest group possible – a pair. We recommend that producers interested in trying grouping on their farm start with pairs or triplets, using animals that are most similar in age. 

PHOTO 2: Another study found no differences in intake and weight gains when calves were paired at birth or at 3 weeks old, but both were increased compared to individually housed calves. Photos provided by Joao H. C. Costa.

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