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Group feeding dairy calves

Quick facts

  • Group feeding systems reduce labor and provide more socialization.
  • Contagious diseases are spread more easily.
  • Having eight to ten calves born within a week of each other is ideal.
  • The system works best for healthy aggressive 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 bottle-feeding until calves are weaned.

The maintenance of health and growth of dairy calves is very important in their first few months of life. 

Advantages and disadvantages of group calf feeding

Group calf rearing offers opportunities to reduce labor and to aid in socializing calves, but the performance of group-managed calves in enlarged hutches is not well documented in dairy production systems.

Advantages of group feeding

  • Labor for feeding calves is reduced.
  • Calves are socialized for group living before weaning.
  • Group learning occurs, especially for early starter consumption.
  • Calf growth is equal to individual housing.
    • Growth of 1.0 to 2.0 lbs. per day may be achieved depending on milk feeding quantity.
  • Cleaning and bedding pens is easier than in individual hutches.

Challenges of group feeding

  • Calves must be more aggressive drinkers when they are grouped.
  • Weak calves must be separated from the group.
  • Calf caretakers must be very observant.
    • It is more difficult to provide individual attention.
  • If the age spread is large, the oldest calves will have delayed weaning or youngest calves will be weaned too soon.
  • Contagious disease may affect more calves.

Tips for feeding dairy calves in a group management system

At birth

Separate newborns from fresh cows ASAP and hand-feed colostrum. Train calf to drink from a firm nipple in an individual pen during colostrum feeding period.

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.

Facilities management

  • Restrict range of age and size within a group when possible. A one-week range works well.
    • More than three weeks increases milk feeding cost for the group as weaning is based on the youngest calf in the group.
  • A super hutch works well for eight to ten calves.
  • Leave the nipple feeder with the group at all times so they suckle the nipple instead of each other.

Feeding guidelines

  • Feed at least 1.5% of birth weight of high-quality milk. Calves fed more than 2% may have loose manure initially.
  • Provide abundant water, bedding, and an outside exercise area.
  • Wean when the group average starter intake is 2.0 lb. per day for three consecutive days.
  • Calves should be fed at the same time each day and preferably early in the day.

Brad Heins, Extension dairy specialist, West Central Research and Outreach Center

Reviewed in 2020

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