Two heads may be better than one according to a growing body of research concerning housing calves in pairs or small groups.

Jennifer Van Os says paired or small-group housing shows benefits in terms of animal welfare and calf-growth performance as well as public perception. She’s an assistant professor and University of Wisconsin-Division of Extension specialist in animal welfare.

Van Os and two of her students – Rekia Salter and Kim Reuscher – recently shared their research findings in a webinar hosted by the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association. For years dairy farmers have been advised to house calves in individual hutches or pens to reduce calf-to-calf disease transmission. Individual housing also provides control of individual feeding and ease of handling individual calves.

But dairy scientists have been learning more about pairing or grouping calves successfully through best practices, Van Os said – such as biosecurity, cleaning and disinfecting of housing and equipment, and grouping strategies.

The same principles apply whether calves are reared in individual housing or in groups.

  • all-in or all-out moves
  • colostrum protocol – establishing good immunity from the start
  • nutrition
  • space allowance
  • fresh and clean bedding
  • proper ventilation to introduce fresh air and remove contaminated air

Van Os and her students have been evaluating how care practices affect the outcome of animal experience – and how they promote the best quality of life.

“Dairy cattle are a social species; they’re herd animals and companionship is important for calves,” Van Os said.

Studies on pair housing of calves have also been conducted at other universities. Trevor DeVries of the University of Guelph and Marina von Keyserlingk of the University of British Columbia, for example, have found various benefits of pair housing before weaning. Calves learn to play with other calves and develop social skills. They are better prepared for joining the milking herd and for encountering new housing systems as well as new feed and water sources.

That helps build resilience to stresses such as weaning, Van Os said. She said a study at the University of British Columbia found that dairy calves benefit from early social housing in terms of increased solid-feed intake and increased gains. Body weight gain pre-weaning is predictive of future productivity, especially in the first lactation.

Salter, a graduate student at UW-Madison, has been researching how to reduce unwanted behavior such as cross sucking in paired or group systems. Cross-sucking behavior could be minimized through the use of slow-flow teats versus feeding from an open bucket, she said. Slow-flow teats prolong the milk meal and should remain available for calves for at least 20 minutes after the animals have finished their milk meal.

Reuscher, a doctoral student at UW-Madison, has been researching how to reduce heat stress when calves are housed in pairs in outdoor hutches. She found that calves had reduced respiratory rates after spending one hour in a ventilated hutch versus a non-ventilated hutch.

Visit fyi.extension.wisc.edu/heifermgmt and Dairyanimalwelfare.org for more information.

Visit calfandheifer.org or ncbi.nlm.nih.gov -- search for “Pair housing dairy calves in modified calf hutches” -- or journalofdairyscience.org -- search for “Early pair housing increases solid feed intake and weight gains in dairy calves” -- for more information.

Lynn Grooms writes about the diversity of agriculture, including the industry’s newest ideas, research and technologies as a staff reporter for Agri-View based in Wisconsin.