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Two calf heads better than one

Holstein calves share pen

One way of socially housing calves is with adjacent hutches sharing a fenced area, as with a pair in an ongoing research study at University of Wisconsin-Blaine Dairy.

When raising calves studies have shown that two – or more – heads are better than one in several ways. Housing milk-fed calves with at least one social partner can be a win-win-win in terms of animal welfare, calf-growth performance and consumer perception.

In the United States and Canada the majority of calves are housed singly before weaning. Individual rearing became standard practice in the 1960s, in part based on University of Wisconsin research. Isolation was seen to decrease the risk of calf-to-calf disease transmission, reducing morbidity and mortality rates. Without computerized monitoring, single housing also allowed for ease of tracking feed intake and signs of illness.

But we now know other factors often contribute to the poor health and performance sometimes seen in group-housed calves. Reduced milk allowances that were once the norm resulted in less nutrient intake, reducing immune function. Insufficient ventilation in older facilities meant subpar air quality, increasing the risk of pathogen exposure.

The principles for promoting good health outcomes are similar whether managing individuals, pairs or groups. The risk of respiratory disease and morbidity is reduced in several ways.

  • Feed sufficient excellent-quality colostrum to promote passive transfer of immunity.
  • Feed sufficient milk or milk replacer for an excellent plane of nutrition.
  • Ensure ventilation for good air quality.
  • Allow sufficient space.
  • Provide clean and dry bedding.
  • Ensure biosecurity and sanitation practices.
  • Limit age differences within groups.
  • Utilize all-in-all-out practices.

Research at UW-Madison on primates found developmental impairments when normally social species were reared in isolation. During the past several years many research groups worldwide applied those concepts to study the development of calves reared either conventionally or socially. The consensus is now that pairs and small groups provide clear advantages when managed well.

It’s good for the calf – it’s important to maintain per-calf space allowance, meaning an increase in total space for pairs or groups. A larger space allows calves to show a wider range of natural behaviors, including playing. They learn to play well with others. Having social contact early in life helps them learn appropriate social interactions and also improves their other learning abilities. Socially reared calves show better flexibility and adaptability to change, including a greater willingness to try new feeds such as hay and total-mixed ration. That translates into better resilience to weaning stress. Calves reared with social companions bellow less during weaning. When regrouped after weaning they start feeding sooner and don’t show the same growth check that conventionally reared calves commonly do.

It’s good for growth performance – across a dozen studies socially reared calves outperformed single calves in one or more categories.

  • solid feed intake – by one-fourth to 1 pound per day pre-weaning and three-quarters to 2.5 pounds per day post-weaning
  • body weight at weaning – by 5 to 9 pounds
  • average daily gain – by one-fourth pound

Those increases were especially apparent for calves fed increased milk allowances. Becoming established on solid feeds before weaning is important for stimulating rumen function. Better early-life growth translates to earlier onset of puberty and better milk production at maturity. All those outcomes are better for the dairy operation.

It’s good for consumer acceptance – this past summer Rielle Perttu, Beth Ventura and Marcia Endres from the University of Minnesota surveyed more than 1,300 adult fairgoers at the Minnesota State Fair. Almost all those fairgoers consumed dairy products – but less than a fourth had family in the dairy industry.

Those surveyed were shown photos of Holstein calves in single, pair or small-group pens in a calf barn. Almost half the participants disagreed with individual housing. Only a third thought it was an acceptable system. Of those surveyed 14 percent thought pairing was unacceptable; 7 percent thought small groups were unacceptable.

In contrast two-thirds of participants thought pairing calves was acceptable and three-fourths thought group pens were acceptable. It’s the first study showing social housing is important for continued consumer acceptance of dairy production.

Social housing can be implemented in many ways, either in a calf barn or outdoors in hutches. The Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin’s “Calf Care Connection” workshops will be held in November in Chilton, Eau Claire and Fennimore, Wisconsin. I will lead breakout sessions to explore scenarios regarding how different types of dairy operations can transition to social rearing and achieve good outcomes.

Rekia Salter and Kim Reuscher are dairy-science master’s students at UW-Madison. They are currently running studies regarding paired calves in outdoor hutches. The team hopes to uncover solutions for some common management challenges. Visit to take a survey to help research efforts.

Jennifer Van Os is an assistant professor and University of Wisconsin-Extension specialist in animal welfare in the department of dairy science at UW-Madison. Email to reach her.

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