Housing liquid-fed dairy calves is not a new system for dairy calves, but it is one that is getting some new attention lately. Some of the attention is a renewed effort on the part of equipment companies in the area of computerized liquid feeding systems. Group housing for dairy calves has some pros and some cons, like anything else in an animal housing system. Using two farms I have visited as examples, this article will discuss some of the potential issues to consider when housing calves in groups.
The first farm was home to around 1200 milking cows. Calves were fed milk replacer, started in hutches for the first 2 weeks of life, then grouped in several pens following the hutches. Calves were quite close in age in each of the group pens. In observing the pens of 6- to 8-week old calves, my first thought was that the calves were far too thin and appeared to be underfed. I also noted that the pens were wet and calves had some noticeable wet areas on their coats. It was also a bit cold in the barn as it was winter and an unheated barn. I also noted some coughing, but not a lot. The dairy farmer immediately told me that he was treating some calves for respiratory issues and felt he had that under control. I started talking about the wet and thin calves, but to my surprise when he showed me the computer feeding schedule, these calves were getting 2 gallons of milk replacer per day; by most standards this was an aggressive feeding schedule. Unfortunately with that high of a feeding schedule comes a lot more urine. When calves produce a lot of urine, you need more bedding and more frequent cleaning. In this case, neither was being done often enough. Cold, wet calves use a lot more energy to maintain their body temperature in winter; it can be a huge energy drain. In this case, body maintenance energy requirements were very high, and calves were not growing as well as they should on a high rate of good quality milk replacer. Indeed, they were thin which also indicates stressed calves. It has been shown that stress causes the body to mobilize fat and may give the appearance of very thin calves. The solution is to maintain treating the respiratory issues and start an aggressive cleaning and bedding program. Keep in mind that whenever you feed more liquid feed, you will require more bedding and pen cleaning management.
The second farm was smaller, milking about 220 cows. On this farm, milk-fed calves were housed from 2 days of age until weaning in a single group. By any standard, this is not a recommended system. Despite the computer feeding system being able to feed each calf according to a preplanned amount, disease transfer in this system is a big problem. Indeed, nearly all younger calves were scouring, and the appearance of scours was different in differing age calves. It is likely that there were a variety of issues affecting the calves, and younger calves were probably affected by several health issues all at once. The solution is not as easy on this farm. It would require 1 or 2 more computer feeders (which would not make economic sense) and a change in the barn or pen arrangement to solve the issues. Given the farm size here and barn configuration that was available, it was a poor decision to move to group-housed calves. The solution may be going back to the hutches for at least the first 3 weeks and then having a 1 group system for 3 more weeks until weaning. This solution may not pencil out, as the trade-off in feeder costs would not be justified. Going back to full-time calf hutches may be the best solution. Any system using a combined hutch and group feeding system will not allow the farm the decrease in labor that they wanted as the hutches still need to be cleaned between calves and now it entails one extra move for calves. Keep in mind that calving schedule and calf numbers can vary quite a bit throughout the year, and this can be a major hurdle for group housing systems.
If you are considering a change in your calf feeding and management, visit some working systems before you make any decisions. Be sure to visit farms of similar size to yours and look at the total costs. Keep labor and bedding as important considerations that may have to be managed differently.