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Calf research in motion

Kathleen Shore Published on 01 January 2011
The Grober Young Animal Development Centre

The Grober Young Animal Development Centre opened its doors in 2009 with the mission of uncovering and presenting best rearing practices for young animals. Over the past two years, approximately 160 calves and 40 lambs have resided at the Woodstock facility for the purpose of conducting nutritional and management research.

Grober has partnered with others from the industry (feed companies and producers) in order to ensure the research is applicable in today’s farming community.



Often young animal development is secondary to the demands of running a farm, from milking to delivering feed or the regular farming chores of planting, harvesting, repairs etc…

However, it is at this milk-fed stage where animals are the most efficient at applying energy from their feed and converting it to growth. Furthermore, immature immune systems are vulnerable to environmental pathogens; a strong management program, including optimal nutrition, will help build that immune system, minimize potential illnesses and establish a foundation for future productivity.

Within the short period of time these animals are fed milk and introduced to starter diets, their nutritional program should be formulated to encourage rumen development and prepare them for the next phase in their growth.

Throughout 2009, Grober focused on comparing individual and group housing for calves and how it pertained to growth, health and feed intake. It also studied how a conventional milk replacer program delivering 6 litres per day compared to an optimal feeding program delivering 9 litres per day (milk replacer fed at a rate of 150 grams per litre).

Results of these trials showed that over the 10-week study period, a heavier heifer can be raised in group housing with no significant differences in health challenges or feed intake (milk replacer or grain).


A heavier heifer was also the result of the optimal feeding program (9 litres per day), with a small reduction in grain intake that did not translate into poorer growth, even post-weaning. There were no significant differences in health between the two levels of nutrition.

In 2010, the focus was to evaluate calf management techniques. The first trial evaluated calves in different group sizes (one, two, six and 11). Each calf had the same floor space (2.2 square meters).

The Grober Young Animal Development Centre
Results from this trial showed that group size did not make a significant difference during the milk replacer-fed period, but a small difference did appear post-weaning (after week eight) in that the large group of 11 heifer calves pulled ahead in bodyweight.

Significant health events were highest in paired pens (n=2) within the first two weeks. Once beyond the first two weeks, paired pens experienced the lowest number of health events.

In general, the number of health events was increased in group pens; however, bodyweight gains and feed intake were not compromised. Conclusions that can be drawn from this trial are:

a. Space per calf is important to consider, but the number of calves in a group is not as important under these conditions;


b. Calves in groups (as seen in 2009) outperform individually housed animals and even paired animals post-weaning; and

c. The number of health events are not significantly elevated in grouped calves beyond the first two weeks.

The second trial focused on weaning management. Treatments included calves weaned over 10 days and calves weaned over five days.

Within these treatments (in the individually housed calves), some calves were paired at weaning. Calves in individual housing did not show a significant difference in gains when weaned over five or 10 days (nor when housed as individuals or pairs).

There was a small difference in health events when calves were weaned at different times. Calves weaned over five days experienced fewer health events during weaning and post-weaning.

However, this difference did not translate into poorer average daily gains; they were in fact similar between the two groups. Interestingly, pairing calves at weaning did have an effect on grain intake. This effect in grain intake was not present between calves weaned over five or 10 days.

Conclusions that can be drawn from this trial are:

a. Weaning can be accomplished over a five- or 10-day weaning period under these conditions without compromising growth or health

b. Grain intakes are encouraged in a group setting earlier at weaning than with calves housed individually. This may have a beneficial effect on reduction of stress at weaning and an improvement in rumen development.

Figure 1
Calves in groups on automatic feeders were evaluated for weaning time only (five versus 10 days). Bodyweight differences were not significant, although there appears to be a trend towards higher gains in the 10-day weaned calves (Figure 1).

There was no difference in the number of health events.

In the case of automatically fed calves, there was a significant difference in grain intake between the different weaning times. Conclusions that may be drawn from this trial are:

a. Time to wean does have an effect on grain intake when animals are grouped and fed by automatic feeders.

b. Time to wean has a positive effect on bodyweight gain. It would appear that grouped animals fed by machine performed better when given a longer time to wean. (This may be because of the gradual process as opposed to hand-fed calves that have a full milk meal taken away.)

The research presented here is an introductory synopsis of the data analyzed from the 2010 set of trials. There is more data yet to be evaluated to help draw a picture of how calves react to different group sizes and different weaning techniques. Even small differences can improve the performance of a calf, which will in turn generate a better lactating animal in time. Grober will continue to further evaluate calf nutrition and management with another set of trials starting in April 2011.  PD

The Grober Young Animal Development Centre opened its doors in 2009 with the mission of uncovering and presenting best rearing practices for young animals. Photos courtesy Grober Young Animal Development Centre.

Kathleen Shore