Back to basics calf care: The benefits of pair or group housing your calves

By Lilian Schaer, Agricultural Writer

Calves are social animals and although individual calf housing has long been the gold standard for preventing disease transmission, research is starting to identify some negative impacts on their social development.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia have found that calves in individual hutches have lower social ranking and competitive success, are more aggressive and fearful, and consume less starter after they begin mixing with other calves.

Gregarious groups

The adoption of automatic feeding technology is also helping to drive change in calf housing. Approximately 16 per cent of producers surveyed in Canada are now using automatic calf feeders, which means they’re also housing the animals in groups. The interaction of group housing leads to better social development, solid feed intake and weight gain.

However, unless the housing is well-managed, calves are at a higher risk of getting sick or dying, especially from respiratory diseases. That’s because there’s more contact between the animals, they’re sharing nipple drinkers and competing with each other for milk and feed, and it’s harder to detect disease in a timely fashion in a group pen than an individual hutch.

Partner pairs

A happy medium that has evolved is the concept of housing calves in pairs. They’re not isolated any longer but at the same time, they’re not exposed to as many other calves as they would be in a group situation, which dramatically lowers the possibility of disease transmission. It’s also possible to monitor their health and their feed intake more closely than in a larger group.

Some penning designs allow for the removal of a partition between individual pens to create a larger pen for a pair of calves.

According to research comparing pre-weaned calf pairs with those raised individually, pair-raised calves engaged more in locomotive playing, vocalized less, learned new tasks more quickly and were better able to adapt to new situations. There was no impact on their health, mortality rates or how quickly they grew.

Top tips for producers considering group- or pair-housing for calves

  • Feed calves individually until they’re at least 12 days old. Research has shown they’re less susceptible to illness, especially respiratory diseases, if they’re not introduced to other calves right away.
  • Keep group sizes small at six to nine calves. Fewer calves mean less stress, better air quality, improved environmental hygiene, and lower respiratory disease rates.
  • Only group calves together that are of similar ages—or similar weights if you’re unsure of age. An ideal age range is about seven days between youngest and oldest in the group.
  • Observe your calves regularly and if you have an automatic feeder, monitor the daily data to look for signs of potential problems.
  • Design calf housing with some excess capacity so you can handle short-term surges in calf numbers.
  • Invest in good ventilation and make sure the systems are well-maintained.
  • Ensure adequate drainage so manure, water, milk and urine can drain away, reducing ammonia levels and boosting calf health.
  • Work closely with your veterinarian and nutritionist to develop the best system for your particular operation.

This project was funded by the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, a five-year federal-provincial-territorial initiative.