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Effectively raising pair-housed calves: Common questions from transitioning farmers

Melissa C. Cantor, Heather W. Neave and Joao H.C. Costa for Progressive Dairy Published on 30 October 2020
Pair-housed calves

Pair raising calves is increasing in popularity in the North American dairy industry, where some welfare and productivity benefits have been consistently shown in recent studies. Pair- or group-housing calves during the milk-feeding phase reduces the age at which calves have contact with other calves.

This gives them behavioural and performance advantages because they are quicker to consume solid feed and they transition better into bigger groups after weaning. However, the biggest question many farmers ask themselves is whether pair housing is a right fit for their operation. In this article, we will discuss some of the initial planning that is critical before making the transition to pair housing.

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First, the same rules for successfully raising calves in individual housing directly apply to pair housing. These include rigorous sanitation procedures, good drainage, protection from elements and providing enough clean bedding material. Moreover, there are fundamental considerations to address before transitioning to pair housing: a strong colostrum management protocol, effective early detection of disease and a functional health-management system. As a rule of thumb, aim for your calf herd to have at least 90% passive transfer before considering pair housing.

There are many management changes to consider with pair housing. They include planning due dates to minimize age between calf pairs, changing housing, limiting competition, allocating appropriate feed levels and using gradual weaning protocols. While this is not a comprehensive list, we hope that covering these fundamental topics will help farms successfully implement pair housing into their operations.

Question 1: When should calves be paired? Calves can be successfully grouped at a week old or less, if managed properly. This may not be possible on every farm. Studies show no differences in solid feed intake and weight gains between calves paired at birth or at 3 weeks old, but both had increased intake compared to individually housed calves and calves paired or grouped at 6 weeks old. Currently, research indicates that calves should be grouped as early as possible, ideally within the first three weeks of life.

One common method used by producers is to pair calves by birth date. Research suggests calves have superior performance from this system when they are paired young (e.g., less than 3 weeks old, with no minimum age). Another option some farmers use, especially on operations with many calves born in a one-week period, is to pair calves by size and suckling speed. All of these options are feasible, but to reduce competition between calves, they should have no more than a 14-day age difference or 10-kilogram (22-pound) size difference.

Question 2: What is the best method for pair housing? Regardless of pairing age, the pair-housing system is fundamental to its success at the farm level. There are many options – some are modifications from individual housing that already exist on the farm, or there can be a new design. One option is to extend the fence or bring corral gates around two individual hutches (Photo 1 above).

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While this is the most economical choice, calves like to be near each other, so one hutch usually gets more soiled than the other. For this reason, some producers prefer to purchase super hutches. Often gates with head spaces are used to create a paddock feeding area (Photo 2).

A super hutch system with a paddock area

An advantage of a super hutch is that calves can remain in this environment longer before being moved. For example, calves can be weaned and have another weaned pair added to the super hutch to provide acclimation to a group after weaning (Photo 3).

A super hutch setup raising tow pairs togetherAlternatively, some farms prefer to raise two pairs of calves per super hutch. A downside to super hutches is the cost of investment and the planning required after weaning if you decide to commingle pairs. If you house calves indoors, a panel can be removed between two individual pens to create pair housing (Photo 4).

Individual pens joined by removing a divider panel

A downside to this method is that it is more difficult to create barriers during milk feeding. However, many producers make this work. Regardless of the housing system you choose, 40 square feet per calf should be provided, and a feeding station that limits competition is essential.

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Question 3: What is the best way to feed paired calves? There are three feeding requirements for paired calves, all of which aim to reduce competition: feed with a teat; offer a high milk allowance; provide two separated feed stations or a large one, and in some cases, provide a physical barrier. Calves can be fed through teat bottles or teat buckets placed on opposite sides of the pen or through a slow-flow bucket with at least three teats (Photo 5).

Tow indidual pens joined by extending wire fencing

Open-bucket feeding will lead to cross sucking, or one calf bullying the other. Research suggests that the major reasons behind cross sucking are not offering a teat and feeding less than 7 litres per day. Thus, it is essential to ensure calf pairs are fed high amounts of milk through a teat – this practice will not only reduce competition at the time of feeding but also reduce cross suckling after feeding.

A physical barrier such as a solid siding between bottles helps limit competition if one calf drinks faster than the other. As described earlier, pairing calves based on suckling speed or weight can help minimize competition as well. Another option is to place a trough with hay or starter between the two milk bottles. This will encourage calves to redirect any motivation for suckling to the feed, plus calves can learn to eat starter socially. Alternatively, calves can be placed in headlocks during milk feeding for 10 minutes to reduce motivation to steal milk from the other calf (Photo 6).

two individual pens joined

However, this option is more costly and labour-intensive. It is possible that offering hay to paired calves will reduce this behaviour, but more research is required.

When calf pairs are first created, closely observe the behaviour of each calf during milk feeding. This way, competition issues can be identified early and appropriate adjustments to the feeding environment can be made immediately. Also, starter should be fed in two separate pails or feed stations to allow calves to eat together. The possibility of animals eating at the same time improves solid feed intake and is critical at the time of weaning.

Question 4: What is the best way to wean paired calves? Calves will only maintain the growth benefits of pair housing if they are weaned properly. Abrupt weaning will result in similar problems with post-weaning growth slumps seen in individual calves. Similarly, remember that calves should not be weaned at less than 42 days old to maximize benefits.

The reason for this is calves are dependent on milk for their main nutrient intake for at least the first three weeks of life. Once they start consuming solid feed, research suggests calves require time for the lower gut to transition to processing solid feeds. Since weaning is one of the most stressful events in a calf’s life, it is best to gradually wean to provide time for the lower gut to make this adjustment.

For example, for calves offered less than 10 litres per day, you should implement at least a 14-day step-down weaning scheme. Gradually wean calves by removing a bottle for seven days in a process called “stepping down” milk. Then remove an additional bottle or feeding by “stepping down” an additional seven days. Some farms reported success with offering hay at this time, so if calves eat too much grain, they can also consume roughage.

The general rule is that the more milk calves are fed, the more “steps” you should include into the weaning program. For farms offering 7 litres per day, a seven-day weaning by removing one bottle can be done. Some farms mentioned success with weaning from 7 litres per day by replacing the second feeding with a bottle of water to encourage starter consumption; however, this needs to be researched in a scientific setting. Either way, remember that the longer you allow calves to adjust to milk removal, the more growth benefits and success you will experience after they wean.

In summary, pair housing is a tool that provides calves the benefits of social learning from their companions as they learn to eat solid feed, wean and adjust to being a ruminant. However, for pair housing to be successful, a high passive transfer rate in the herd must be in place (at least 90%), calves must be fed a high allowance of milk through a teat to avoid cross-sucking, a physical barrier or separation should be between bottles to avoid competition and calves must be gradually weaned to avoid post-weaning growth slumps. Pair housing can work for farms, and the system can be simple if these rules of thumb are followed.  end mark

PHOTO 1: Two individual pens brought together by corral fencing. Calves are fed inside individual hutches to avoid milk competition.

PHOTO 2: A super hutch system with a paddock area, head spaces for starter and for milk feeding

PHOTO 3: A super hutch setup raising two pairs together (one calf not pictured). A starter trough is placed on the back to encourage group feeding.

PHOTO 4: Individual pens joined by removing a divider panel. Two bottles are placed far apart to avoid competition.

PHOTO 5: Two individual pens joined by extending wire fencing. A slow-flow teat bucket can feed large meals while slowing milk flow to avoid cross sucking.

PHOTO 6: Two individual pens joined. Note the headlocks installed to avoid milk competition due to the shape of the pen. Photos provided by Melissa Cantor.

Note: The photos in this article are examples of producer setups for different pair, or double pair, housing and feeding systems for limiting competition and encouraging group feeding in calves.

Melissa C. Cantor is a Ph.D. student at the University of Kentucky under Dr. Costa’s supervision.

Heather W. Neave is a post-doctoral fellow at AgResearch Ltd., New Zealand.

Joao H.C. Costa
  • Joao H.C. Costa

  • Assistant Professor
  • University of Kentucky
  • Email Joao H.C. Costa

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