Group Feeding Calves

December 2019 

Dairy 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.

Maintaining the health and growth of dairy calves is very important in their first few months of life. For the University of Minnesota's dairy, whole milk from high somatic cell cows as well as bulk tank milk is fed to calves in enlarged hutches. By using whole milk, the casein in milk will clot and provide nutrition throughout the day for calves fed once per day, which has been our management style for many years. Successful group feeding of dairy calves is enhanced with aggressive suckling during infancy and early consumption of high-quality calf starter. We have an on-going research study at our dairy to evaluate the growth, health and, most importantly, the economic performance of dairy calves fed once per day and weaned at different ages. 

At our 240-cow dairy in western Minnesota, calves are separated at birth from their dams, housed indoors in individual pens, and fed 2 L of colostrum per 90 lb of body weight two times per day for two days. Calves that are healthy and aggressive are moved to group housing at 3 days of age after the morning feeding. The pens or super hutches for group housing included an indoor area (12 × 20 ft) bedded with wheat straw with an outside access space that measured 12 × 20 m. Groups of calves are fed with a 10-calf Skellerup peach teat feeder with 61 L liquid volume capacity, which is washed and disinfected after each feeding. Calves are fed 6 L of milk per calf per day, and are fed a calf starter beginning on the third day of age. Water is provided free choice from 3 days of age with Ritchie water fountains, and hay is provided free choice at 3 weeks of age.

There are advantages and challenges of feeding dairy calves in a group feeding system.

Advantages are:

  1. labor for feeding calves is reduced, calves are socialized for group living,
  2. group learning occurs (especially for early starter consumption),
  3. calf growth is equal to individual housing,
  4. adequate growth of 1.0 to 2.0 lb per day may be achieved depending on milk feeding level, and
  5. calves are easier to bed and super hutches are easier to clean than individual hutches.

Challenges include:

  1. calves must be aggressive drinkers when they are grouped,
  2. weak calves must be separated,
  3. calf attendant must be a good observer,
  4. if age spread is large, the oldest calves will have delayed weaning or youngest calves will be weaned too soon,
  5. contagious disease may affect more calves, and
  6. it is more difficult to provide individual attention.

Tips for feeding dairy calves in a group management system:

  1. Separate newborns from fresh cows ASAP and hand-feed colostrum.
  2. Train calf to drink from a firm nipple in an individual pen during colostrum feeding period.
  3. Do not add a new calf to a group until it is a fast aggressive sucker. Most are ready by the third day. Consider calves less than 65 lb to be at risk and to require careful observation, especially during winter.
  4. Feed at least 1.5% of birth weight of high quality milk. Calves fed >2% may have loose manure initially.
  5. Restrict range of age and size within a group when possible. One week range works well; more than 3 weeks increases milk feeding cost for the group as weaning is based on the youngest calf in the group.
  6. A super hutch works well for 8 to 10 calves.
  7. Leave the nipple feeder with the group so they suck the nipple instead of each other.
  8. Provide abundant water, bedding, and an outside exercise area.
  9. Wean when group average starter intake is 2.0 lb per day for 3 consecutive days.
  10. Calves should be fed at the same time each day and preferably early in the day.