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Successful outcomes from group housing systems for calves

Robert James for Progressive Dairy Published on 31 July 2020

Labour savings has been listed as an advantage for group housing systems. However, fewer but more qualified personnel replace multiple ‘calf feeders,’ with the result that the labour cost might be the same.

Ideally, working conditions are improved and employee turnover is reduced.



Conventional wisdom has told us we should house dairy calves individually to prevent nose-to-nose contact and control spread of disease. Calf hutches have been viewed as the “gold standard” for calf rearing. We were also encouraged to limit intake of milk or milk replacer nutrients to encourage rumen development and early weaning. However, let’s consider beef cattle systems:

  • They calve outdoors.

  • Calves nurse the dam multiple times per day to receive the initial colostrum and transition milk.

  • Milk intake is limited only by the dam’s supply. Angus calves drink almost 6 litres per day by the end of the first week and 9 litres per day by 6 weeks old.

  • Milk has higher fat and protein levels than most milk replacers.

  • Mortality rates are less than 3% through weaning at 6-plus months old.

Obviously, it’s nearly impossible to replicate this under today’s confinement or grazing dairy production systems. However, what can we do is attempt to practically replicate the most important components on today’s dairy production systems.

Research at several universities and experiences on dairies have shown several key factors positively associated with calf growth and well-being.

  • Calves need access to sufficient amount of milk or milk replacer nutrients. In most cases, that means as much as 8 litres of milk per day or 900 grams of milk solids.

  • Grouping calves improves intake of milk or milk replacer and calf starter.

  • Paired or grouped calves do better after weaning. They spend more time eating (more meals) and are more accepting of “new” feeds than individually housed calves.

Not all farms have made the switch to group housing systems successfully. The key factors enhancing the likelihood of a positive outcome with group feeding from either an autofeeder or acidified free-choice system are listed below. The first two factors, maternity and colostrum, apply regardless of the system and can’t be emphasized enough.


Where it all begins. The environment should be clean and comfortable for the cow and calf. Heat-stressed cows give birth early to calves that don’t absorb colostrum antibodies as well. The calving environment is where the biome (bacterial populations in the digestive and respiratory system of the calf) become established, and this has a short- and long-term impact on calf health and growth. It’s important that “good” bacteria become established early in the calf’s life.



This is of paramount importance. Colostrum should be harvested as soon after calving as possible to optimize IgG concentration. If possible, feed the dam’s colostrum to her calf, as the calf will absorb her white blood cells, which enhances immune development in the calf. Handle colostrum carefully in order to minimize bacterial growth. Store it in clean containers, and either cool it immediately (4ºC within 30 minutes) or feed it immediately. Bacterial populations will double every 20 minutes, and high bacteria counts in colostrum (greater than 100,000 colony-forming units per milliliter) or ingested from the environment impair IgG absorption.


Most farms house and feed calves individually for 3 to 14 days to ensure they have consumed their colostrum and have a good suckle reflex. They can also be more easily observed for early onset of digestive or respiratory disease.

Facility design

Key factors are good drainage, adequate space per calf and excellent ventilation. Flat floors and no drains contribute to wet bedding, accumulation of manure and urine and excessive ammonia in the air. Facilities should provide at least 35 square feet of bedded area per calf. Forced-air ventilation systems are highly recommended to provide a continuous source of fresh air into the facility. (See University of Wisconsin Dairyland Initiative workshops.) Limit group size to less than 25 calves per nipple.

High-quality liquid diet

Either milk or milk replacer can provide desired nutrients successfully. One commonly assumes milk is best. However, maintaining the quality of milk from the cow to the calf is a challenge. All milk, whether it’s salable or unsalable, must be pasteurized. This requires a considerable investment in a pasteurizer and refrigerated tanks to store raw and pasteurized milk. A system must then be developed to transfer cooled, pasteurized milk from storage to the feeder. Waste milk can vary greatly in quality and quantity.

Although it may appear to be more expensive, use of a high-quality milk replacer certainly simplifies management. If milk replacers are the choice, they should utilize ingredients that will go into and stay in solution at feeding temperatures of 40ºC to 43ºC. Milk replacers specifying higher mixing temperatures will not work. For best results, milk replacers should have at least 25% crude protein (CP). Fat percentage can vary according to environmental conditions.

Feeding plans

Acidified free-choice systems allow calves to drink all they want at each meal and per day. Adjustment to the taste of acidified milk may take some time for the youngest calves, but they rapidly increase their intake of milk by the second week. Weaning is accomplished by reducing the number of nipples or restricting milk availability at the appropriate time. Feeding management is a “learned” art for the calf manager.


In contrast, automatic calf feeders enable the manager to control daily intake and meal size. It has become evident that allowing calves to consume milk or milk replacer “free-choice” works well when placing calves in groups with access to the feeding station. Meal size is limited to 1.5 to 2.5 litres and requires the calf to wait around two hours before being allowed another meal. In contrast to the acidified systems, weaning is accomplished by gradually reducing the milk allowance over 10 to 14 days. Another advantage of the automated systems is the availability of behavioural data, which can be useful in early detection of illness.


Milk or milk replacer is great for calves, but it’s also an excellent growth medium for bacteria. Most automatic calf feeders have systems which clean the internal workings of the feeder and the lines automatically and rinse the nipple between calves. Successful managers will also hand clean the nipples daily and scrub the feeding stall. Acidified free-choice systems rely on decreasing the pH to less than 4.2, which limits growth of some undesirable bacteria. It does not stop microbial growth and, if lines and storage vessels are not periodically cleaned, bacterial growth can reach an unsatisfactory level. In the concentrations required to acidify milk, formic acid is highly corrosive and can cause severe irritation to the skin.


Group housing systems require a calf manager, which is a person passionate about calves with a keen eye for calf behaviour and a commitment to making the system work. With autofeeder systems, they are data-centric and good at maintaining equipment. Labour savings has been listed as an advantage for group housing systems. However, fewer but more qualified personnel replace multiple “calf feeders,” with the result that the labour cost might be the same. Ideally, working conditions are improved and employee turnover is reduced.

This discussion reveals that success with group housing systems can’t be attributed to a single factor. There is no “silver bullet.” If automated systems are the choice, support from the equipment dealer or a calf and heifer specialist from either a milk replacer company or a private consultant is invaluable. Another advantage of group housing systems is: They certainly promote more desirable social development of calves, which enhances adaptation to robotic milking systems and, as an added benefit, a better impression of animal care by the consumer.  end mark

Robert James
  • Robert James

  • Calf Management Specialist
  • GPS Dairy Consultants
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