by Katie Navarra

Raising calves in single hutches has become standard on dairy farms across the United States for both reducing the spread of disease and ease of handling. However, an increasing number of dairy producers and calf raisers are transitioning to pair or group housing for improved calf development, growth and welfare.

“Pair or group housing is a growing trend worldwide,” said Jennifer Van Os, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “The norm will be a move towards more pair and group housing.”

During her presentation at the first-ever Dairy Calf and Heifer Association (DCHA) Virtual conference, Van Os discussed the benefits of transitioning to pair or group housing and offered strategies for converting existing single hutch housing into pair housing.

Undoubtedly, single housing has its advantages. It decreases calf-to-calf disease risk by reducing the amount of contaminated aerosols, feed or bedding young calves come in contact with, although animals that share fence lines still have the potential of some contact. Housing calves alone also allows for controlling and monitoring feed intake, observing the general health of the animal and it makes some husbandry tasks easier. And given the current state of strict social distancing guidelines, one may wonder why keeping calves alone isn’t a better option.

“As humans we should do our part to reduce transmission, but for those of us that live with family we are staying within our households,” Van Os said. “Social interaction within a controlled group is important.”

Avoiding contamination from sick calves or older animals, cleaning and disinfecting housing and equipment are best practices for raising calves in any environment. Following an all-in/all-out strategy when moving cows, providing proper nutrition, space allowance, bedding and ventilation as well as following a colostrum protocol are just standard procedure whether a calf lives alone or in a group.

Van Os calls a shift to pair or group housing a win-win-win situation. The first win, is increased calf growth performance. Previous research has shown that increased solid feed intake and weight gain pre-weaning is predictive of an animal’s productivity in lactation. And Van Os’ research group also found a positive benefit for weight gain in pairs and groups. The second win, is allowing calves an opportunity for social interaction. Additional space and a buddy encourage play behavior and social development. Why should farmers be concerned with social development?

“It gives them a higher rank in the social hierarchy which gives them better access to food and water and also cultivates a less fearful behavior, which makes them more adaptable to new things like weaning and the milking parlor,” she said. “It also better prepares them for social groups and the changing elements when going from a hutch to bedded pack and freestalls.”

The final win — it’s a visible strategy farms can use as an example of incorporating animal welfare into daily processes. Van Os highlighted a Livestock Code of Practice introduced by Tesco, a United Kingdom supermarket giant. Citing scientific evidence, the grocery chain requires its dairy providers to house all calves in pair or group situations for a continued relationship.

Transitioning from a single hutch to pair or group housing doesn’t necessarily mean scrapping all the hutches or starting from scratch. The setup can be flexible and based on the farm’s resources. Single hutch areas can be converted into doubles by enlarging the fenced area to 6’ x 9’ and setting two single hutches side-by-side. Farms preferring to use hutches can also purchase double-wide hutches that allow enough space for calves to share. Regardless of the size, it’s still important to monitor for signs of heat stress and ventilated hutches are more comfortable for cows.

Van Os’ research included surveying 416 dairy farms across the United States. Approximately one-quarter of dairy producers are housing calves in pairs or groups. Some created groups of eight or fewer animals and others had groups larger than eight. In the group scenarios, the farms used barn space to house those in each group.

Competition for feed and cross-sucking have been cited as concerns for housing calves in pairs or groups. Kim Reuscher, a graduate student in Van Os’ lab, collected data on strategies for minimizing unwanted behaviors. Reuscher’s observations found that when the calves were fed milk through a teat instead of an open bucket, specifically a slow feed teat that was available 20 minutes after the meal was consumed, decreased competition and cross-sucking.

“The farm employees even said that combining the calves brought job satisfaction because they enjoyed seeing the calves play,” Van Os concluded. “It’s a win-win-win for farms.”