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The Inside Story on Calf Care Alternatives

The decisions you make regarding calf housing and feeding methods can have an enormous impact on their health growth and behavior and, as a result, will also affect your dairy farm profit.

Housing, Feeding and Management on the Inside

Research and breeder experience have determined that the benchmark housing choice for disease control in nursing calves is still an individual outdoor hutch. However, careful management and proper barn design can help make nursery barns for either individually or group-housed calves successful. Deciding which one to choose for your farm will require careful consideration of the pros and cons of both types of indoor management systems.

Better Housing by Design

When considering healthy indoor calf housing, the following housing principles are crucial to efficient design:

  1. The layout of the barn must provide a minimum of approximately 15 square feet of bedded area per calf in group pens.
  2. The design of the barn must offer a minimum of approximately 30 square feet in individual pens.
  3. Indoor housing has no physical barrier to prevent the spread of disease so plentiful space must be available.
  4. Indoor housing and feeding usually means the calves consume larger volumes of liquid. As a result, more space is needed per calf because bedding is soiled more quickly.
  5. It is important to remove moisture from the calf’s environment. Sloped concrete and floors with gravel draining base improve the removal of moisture and improve the insulating lifetime of the bedding while decreasing humidity for improved air hygiene in the calf barn.

Advantages for Dairy Calves Raised Indoors

There is a definite advantage for group housed nursing calves when they are given more space. Reports indicate drier beds, healthier calves, and better growth rates, with more space, calves can socialize and play freely in a more natural group setting. The open housing also allows calves to suckle the nozzle between feedings – also a natural behavior. With all the advantages, calf managers must still be as vigilant in monitoring calf health visually. Even with computerized monitoring of behavior changes managers must remember that not all calves change their feeding behavior when they are sick. So, despite the data collection advantages, managers must still be as vigilant in monitoring calf health visually as they are with individual housing.

Benefits for Dairy Producers

Every dairy operation will have its own opportunities and challenges with implementation of group feeding and indoor housing. Labor management differs between automatic group feeders and individual pens.  Total time spent is about the same for both systems, although the focus is different. Five areas that are gaining producer support are the positive results in the areas of calf well-being, dairy profitability, labor savings, caregiver comfort and protection of milk’s good image.

To prevent respiratory disease you must ensure good air hygiene through proper ventilation that is draft-free, preferably achieved through natural ventilation with supplemental positive-pressure tubes.

Inside Pen Management Pointers

  1. All-in/all-out management of group and individual pen calf barns can help break disease cycles by separating older calves from young ones in both time and space and thus reducing the risk of young calves picking up pathogens from contact with older animals.
  2. Clean, deep, dry bedding allows calves to “nest” and, as a result, trap a layer of warm air around themselves to reduce heat loss as well as lowering airborne bacterial counts.
  3. Air exchange is an important consideration and must be managed
  4. If the system is not computerized, it is still important to keep accurate records.

Choosing Between Individual or Group Housing

Before you even consider how to house your nursing calves, a successful program must have started with excellent pre-fresh cow and heifer care, clean maternity pens, and attentive newborn care. Prompt removal from the adult cow environment, navel dipping and colostrum feeding are the next steps. It is well accepted that using individual pens to house calves can solve many of the concerns regarding the spread of disease.  Sick calves may be easier to pick out in individual pens with screening done at each feeding, with restraint for examination and quicker treatment. The issue of socialization can be somewhat resolved by placing calves in pairs by removing a panel between two pens after the period of highest disease risk has passed, perhaps after 2 or 3 weeks old or even waiting until much closer to or after weaning.

With individual pens, chores are mostly focused on feeding and cleaning up after each calf.

Group housing compliments automated feeding systems and allows calves to exhibit or develop healthy social behaviors.

Consider Automated Feeding

Automatic group feeders not only allow for greater volumes of milk or replacer to be fed per day but also allow for a more natural frequency and distribution of milk meals. Producers have automated control over how much milk or replacer each calf receives during its stay in the nursery and can automatically schedule weaning. This removes the potential for human error.

Choosing Between Individual or Group Feeders

It goes without saying that timely delivery of an appropriate quantity of quality, clean colostrum is essential for providing passive immunity to calves. This is especially important for those raised in groups. Labor management differs in focus but not amount between automatic group feeders and individual pens.  The work associated with automatic group feeders is spent more on monitoring, managing health and watching performance. The schedule is more flexible than that needed for individually housed calves, where the chores are mostly focused on feeding and clearing up after each calf.

Challenges with Automated Feeder Management

Every system has its pluses and minuses.  It is important to get the details right when you implement an automated feeding system.

  1. A high stocking density relative to machine availability results in inadequate time for all calves to nurse, which can lead to cross-sucking.
  2. Less expensive machines need more frequent attention for filling and do not have data recording or self-cleaning capabilities.
  3. Not all machines can serve every nipple simultaneously. This reduces the time available to feed calves at each station.
  4. Mixing problems, due to inaccurate calibration and problems with milk replacer clumping, can result in inconsistent delivery of milk or replacer, which can lead to increased incidence of cross-sucking as well as scours and other diseases.
  5. Inadequate cleaning of the machines, either due to inadequate maintenance or even water quality problems, is also one of the main causes of disease in group-housed nursery calves.
  6. Increased group size can mean less time available per calf to nurse and greater risk of exposure to potentially more sick calves.
  7. Note: Producers often find smaller group sizes to be more efficient for calf health and growth.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Recent innovations have made group feeding and rearing a practical alternative to traditional rearing in individual pens or hutches. As producers move away from hutches and look into building new calf barns or remodeling an existing barn to house nursing calves, they have the opportunity to consider both automatic group feeders, group housing or individual pens. Knowing the risks and benefits of both systems, as well as the investment involved, can help determine if the inside story is the right management fit for your operation.



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