The West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC) maintains on-going research studies to evaluate the growth, health, and the economic performance of dairy calves. At our 240-cow dairy in western Minnesota, some of our calves are housed indoors in individual pens, and others are placed in group housing, either inside or in super hutches.
Group Feeding Calves
Dairy replacement feeding and management systems have undergone major evolution in the last 25 to 30 years. As herd sizes increased, individual hutches were introduced to protect calves from contaminated and overcrowded environments. Recently higher levels of milk feeding are recommended to promote early growth, and now some farmers are adopting extended suckling until calves are weaned. Group calf rearing offers opportunities to reduce labor and to aid in socializing calves, but performance of group-managed calves in enlarged hutches is not well documented in dairy production systems. The maintenance of health and growth of dairy calves is very important in their first few months of life. Read more about our studies with group feeding.
Automated Calf Feeding
Whether conventional or organic, raising replacement dairy heifers is an expensive investment for a dairy operation. The nutrition, health, and management of replacement heifer calves may have a major impact on the profitability of the entire dairy operation. Organic producers, especially, may be faced with challenges such as higher feed costs and maintaining animal health. As the use of group housing for pre-weaned dairy calves has increased, automatic calf feeders have gained popularity. There are many advantages to utilizing automatic calf feeders in a group housing system such as accessibility to different feed programs, reduced labor, consistent hygiene, individual calf monitoring and socialization benefits for the calf. Read more about how we're utilizing an automated calf feeding system for our dairy calves.
Rearing Calves on Cows
Most organic dairy producers in the US use individual housing methods to raise dairy calves, meaning each calf has their own pen for the first several weeks of life. In a new research project at the WCROC, we are raising calves on cows in our dairy system as one of the experimental treatments.
Disbudding Dairy Calves
Disbudding is a common practice in the dairy industry. This procedure is the preferred method of horn removal — as opposed to dehorning mature cows — which ensures cow and handler safety once heifers reach adulthood. However, this procedure inflicts acute pain and stress in calves and is a welfare concern among consumers. According to a survey in Minnesota, all organic and conventional dairy farms disbudded their heifer calves. This implies that disbudding is a welfare concern for all dairy producers. We recently did a study to assess the effects of Dull It compared to lidocaine on acute pain and stress of heifer dairy calves. Read more on our disbudding study.