Group calf housing can be effective
Jessica Rose Spangler
“Group housing has been around a long time. It’s always been an option, but it’s been used more in countries with seasonal calving,” Jud Heinrichs, professor of dairy science at Penn State said.
Heinrichs was one of four presenters during Penn State Jan. 14 Technology Tuesday Webinar focusing on dairy calf group housing.
“For the last 50 or so years, we’ve been focused on individual housing in the U.S.,” he said. “We have more control” over things like individual calf health, feed intake, average daily gain, weaning age and rumen development.
Group housing makes controlling those five factors more challenging. However, success can be achieved with correct management and properly designed systems.
There are three main types of group housing systems for pre-weaned calves: gang or mob feeders, ad libitum or free choice, and the newer automated systems.
Despite the size of any of the three systems, each pen should be designed to allow it to be filled with newborn calves in seven to 10 days, according to Dan McFarland, ag engineer with Penn State Extension.
All calves need 25 to 50 square feet of bedding space, and that measurement doesn’t include feeding or watering areas, McFarland said. Less space can be used as long as bedding is kept dry and plentiful. Feeding areas should be stable and 6 to 8 feet wide.
Waterers need to be located in the same area as the milk, but not in the resting area. Each pen needs 18 inches per calf of feeding space for grain consumption. Pens shouldn’t touch the outside wall of the building for storm and draft protection. All roofs, and sides when possible, should be insulated to reduce radiant heat in the summer, reduce condensation and provide warmth in the winter. Draft protection is essential.
“Calves are a pretty good judge of their own comfort level,” McFarland said. “They’ll move to where they’re most comfortable.”
Gang feeders are most popular in areas with seasonal calving, Heinrichs said. In places like New Zealand, farmers have little money invested in calf housing because they use it so little throughout the year.
Calves of similar weight and age are grouped together and often fed twice a day with waste or whole milk. Gang feeders are utilized to save on labor and feeding time, especially when there are large numbers of calves being fed milk at one time, Heinrichs said.
“Keeping calves with the same size and age in one pen makes it easier to train the calves in a few days,” he said. “More variety in the calves makes it harder to train them.”
Ad libitum feeders
With ad libitum feeders, “milk is basically available 24/7. Typically calves eat 50 percent more than what the farmer would give” in a more typical twice-a-day individual feeding system, Heinrichs said.
Calves raised in this type of system receive a higher milk dry matter intake, generating larger calves. But Heinrichs cautions that they can be difficult to wean because they often eat less grain, resulting in lower rumen devilment and potentially a higher age at weaning.
“You can also have a problem with calves sucking each other,” he said.
Milk flavor can be a hindrance. Milk replacer is the most commonly fed and acid needs to be added to lengthen its shelf-life. But if the feeding system isn’t cleaned daily, the buildup of bacteria will keep some calves from drinking.
Some producers have noted calves simply not drinking the acid-added milk replacer. Heinrichs’ suggestion is that if calves are trained on the ad libitum feeder immediately after the first or second feeding of colostrum, they’ll reject it less often.
To help avoid any “off” milk tastes in any of the three feeding systems, Chris Rossiter-Burhans, technical support vet with Poulin Grain Inc. of Vermont, recommends using one of the pre-acidified milk replacers that are currently on the market because they are palatable, convenient and safe.
“It’s hard to outdo this system in terms of calf growth and health,” Rossiter-Burhans said.
Automated calf feeding systems are a relatively new technology but are quickly gaining popularity. One feeding station can accommodate up to 25 calves in one or two pens. Milk, milk replacer or a mix of both can be used, Heinrichs said.
“You don’t have to worry about average daily gain being different within one pen. You can control it,” he said, meaning that calves of varying ages and sizes can be housed together without too much concern.
“There can be some competition and cross sucking with the one nipple system,” he added.
To help eliminate competition at the nipple, Rossiter-Burhans recommends putting gates or stalls around the nipple so the calf that’s drinking isn’t pushed aside by larger calves.
And when it comes to weaning, the transition is often times easier than in other group feeding systems. With each calves’ tailored consumption, milk levels can be gradually lessened to persuade feed intake prior to weaning, Heinrichs said.
Automated calf feeding systems “don’t change the total time you spend with the calves. They just change what you’re doing more observation,” he said. “If a new barn design is in your future, maybe these are something to think about.”
Things to Consider
According Rossiter-Burhans, regardless of the feeding system, milk temperature is critical.
“Simple or sophisticated, they all definitely need to be heated in all three seasons,” she said, adding that the milk needs to be held between 70 and 90 degrees F in ensure proper consumption.
Health stressors will be higher in group arrangements, making colostrum management critical.
“Fifteen percent of colostrum on farms, on average, is bad. I don’t want those 15 percent of calves being sick because of the higher stress in group housing,” he said.
“There’s no excuse not to monitor colostrum quality,” said Rossiter-Burhans. “Calves need a really good start to be able to thrive in group housing.”
Calves that aren’t aggressive suckers and seek out the nipple by three days old won’t thrive in group housing, Rossiter-Burhans said.
Prevention is Heinrich’s best suggestion for avoiding sick calves: test colostrum quality, measure blood total protein, frequently clean feeding systems, and maintain clean pens bedded with straw.
If a blood test shows a calf has not received adequate amounts of antibodies via colostrum, that calf should be raised individually. She may still get sick, but if she’s not in a group, there’s a much lower chance of an entire pen of calves getting ill, said Rossiter-Burhans.
“The biggest complaint in group housing systems is not having adequate ventilation,” Rossiter-Burhans said. “It pays to invest in the technology.”
Poor ventilation can exacerbate respiratory issues in calf groups and a lack of observation doesn’t help in containing them.
“Early detection is key,” she continued. “Develop treatment protocols with your vet to determine what’s going to give the best treatment response” to further prevent disease spread.
To listen to the entire webinar, including an in-depth look at mechanically ventilated calf barns designed by Curt Gooch of Cornell University, visit http://extension.psu.edu/animals/dairy/courses/technology-tuesday-series/webinars/is-group-calf-housing-for-you.<\c> Lancaster Farming file photo
When calves are housed in groups, pens should be bedding with straw, kept dry and protected from drafts. Young calves should also wear jackets to lessen the stress during the cold months.