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Calf group housing: Is it worth it?

Progressive Dairyman Editor Jenna Hurty Published on 27 February 2015

So which came first, the chicken or the egg? In her presentation at the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin’s Calf Care Connection event last October, Dr. Sandra Godden, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine, likened the question of calf-feeding systems versus housing systems to this age-old quandary.

While this might be a rather comical lens through which to view this dilemma, it nonetheless helps to put into perspective the questions arising as a result of the recent surge of information encouraging producers to increase the number of feedings their calves receive each day.



For years, standard procedure has been to feed calves 2 to 3 litres of milk or milk replacer twice a day. Now research shows that increasing the calf’s plane of nutrition has a positive effect on the calf’s growth, health and future milk production.

Increasing the calf’s plane of nutrition can mean feeding the calf more at each feeding or increasing from two to three feedings per day. Unfortunately for producers who choose to increase feeding, this does not come without its challenges, namely labour.

To overcome this challenge, some producers are looking into group housing. This increases their feeding options to include mob feeding, acidified milk and computer feeders. Unfortunately, group housing is not without its downsides.

For years, calf hutches have been the golden standard of calf housing, Godden says. They are well-ventilated, draft-free, all-in-all-out and easily sanitized. Housing calves individually helps to inhibit the spread of disease by preventing direct contact between them. It also makes calves easier to handle since there is only one of them at a time instead of several.

Group housing may offer more feeding options and overcome the challenge of feeding calves individually. However, it means letting calves have direct contact with each other, making it easier to spread disease. It also generally means bringing calves inside, where ventilation can become an issue. Because of the group setting, sanitization becomes even more critical.


Although mob feeding, acidified milk and computer feeders are all group-feeding options, computer or automated feeders are growing to be the most common. While these systems enable the producer to feed calves as often as they wish, it still involves a fair amount of labour.

These systems need to be maintained daily. Often it does not mean less labour so much as a re-allotment of labour. However, it does allow for more flexibility with worker schedules and added employee comfort since they spend less time outside.

Most manufacturers of automatic feeders recommend 25 to 30 calves per station. Many producers limit the number to 20 calves per feeder. Research shows that calves in group housing do best when they are in groups of less than 10. Disease risk rises with overcrowding.

Keeping the groups smaller helps to reduce this problem. It also reduces competition at the feeder. Competition at the feeder may cause some calves to not be able to eat all of their daily allowance. This decreases their growth rate and is detrimental to their health and future profitability.

Failing to feed calves enough can also lead to cross-sucking. If this is an issue, increasing their daily allowance should eliminate the problem.

Calves should be receiving between 0.8 and 1.3 kilograms of dry matter per day when fed as a 12 to 15 percent total solids mixture (approximately 6 to 10 litres per day).


Each meal should be 1.5 to 2.4 litres. Most calves will eat three to five meals a day on an automated system. Pasteurized waste milk is also an option on autofeeders. However, it presents added logistical challenges.

Wait 12 to 14 days to introduce calves to the autofeeder. At this point, they will learn more quickly and the producer will spend less time teaching them how to use it. On the day of introduction, skip the morning feeding so calves are hungry.

Put them in the pen with the autofeeder and take them to it. About 90 percent of the calves should learn within the first two trips. Be careful not to overdo it. Monitoring or helping them too much could cause them to associate the person’s presence with being fed.

While milk autofeeders have their benefits, Godden does not recommend using a grain autofeeder because they restrict grain intake. She says it is much better to set up a system that gives calves constant access to grain.

As was mentioned previously, disease control is perhaps one of the biggest challenges associated with group housing. Although computerized feeders can track how each calf is performing in terms of the amount of milk consumed and the time it took to do so, it does not replace an actual person checking on each and every calf.

At this point, the feeder is not timely or sensitive enough to detect disease well. It is in the producer’s and the calves’ best interest to have someone in with the calves every day, checking them for signs of sickness or other problems.

Regardless of the feeding method, Godden encourages feeding calves more milk. It may be a challenge, but it has many benefits. Producers need to weigh the pros and cons of each system and determine what will work best on their operation.  PD

Jenna Hurty
  • Jenna Hurty
  • Editor
  • Progressive Dairyman