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Moos News

Paired Housing for Calves – The Research Summary Breakdown

With the introduction of the new Dairy Code of Practice, paired housing of calves is going to be a requirement for all dairy farmers in the future (likely January 2033). This has been a hot topic with various opinions on how feasible or beneficial this change will be. 

 

The decisions for the Code of Practice come from the overall collection and review of field research on these key issues. Also, we can’t ignore the role that the public plays and the perception of various husbandry practices in the dairy industry.  There is a 150 page document that reviews the scientific research on the issues pertaining to calves (and a matching one for cows) - that is where the information for this newsletter is coming from. 

 

So on to group housing of calves! It is important to consider some of the caveats of this part of the revised code. It isn’t just “all calves must be housed in pairs or groups”, there are more subtleties:

  • Calves that are thriving, healthy, compatible and 2-4 weeks old are the ones that need to be housed in pairs or groups

  • Paired housing can be delayed due to health or welfare concerns only at the advice of a herd veterinarian or another qualified advisor. 

 

What is the motivation behind moving to paired or group housing? Studies have shown increases in weight gain and solid feed intake, better adaptability to change (like weaning), and the ability to express social behaviours; which calves are highly motivated to do.

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However, one of the main advantages to individual housing is the effect of decreasing calf disease. The official research report for the Code of Practice reviews all of the current research on paired housing vs. individual housing and the effect on health outcomes in calves. It does muddy the water a little bit on this section. Here is the summary:

  1. The majority of the research comparing group and individual housing and health outcomes (11/17 studies) demonstrate an advantage to individual housing - however, the studies are not consistent enough to be comparable according to the research committee.

  2. 6/8 studies on risk for scours found no difference between individual and group housed calves. 

  3. Respiratory disease risk is higher in group pens (vs. individual housing) when:

    • Incidence of respiratory disease is already high

    • When group sizes exceed 10 calves

  4. Mortality rates also increase with group size.

 

The section on health outcomes is the least straightforward. The overarching message from the veterinary community is that your calf management strategy has to be top-notch, and any issues need to be assessed and corrected, or group housing can be a recipe for calf health disaster. This can include:

  • Colostrum management

  • Calf vaccines and at-birth treatments (like First Defense or Halocur)

  • Identifying which pathogens of concern are present on your farm through diagnostic testing

  • Dry cow vaccination programs

  • Biosecurity and equipment hygiene

  • Treatment protocols for scours and pneumonia

 

Although this list may seem daunting, it is a good idea to talk to your herd health veterinarian about any concerns you have regarding group housing and calf health.

The other main concern with group housed calves is cross-sucking. Obviously, calves in hutches have no opportunity to suck on other calves. Cross-sucking can lead to issues of teat damage, non-milking quarters, and even transmission of staph aureus mastitis. 

Cross-sucking can be mitigated by the following strategies:

  • Feeding fibrous feeds 

    • Hay

    • Straw

    • Substrates would be chopped to about 3-4 cm, but some long stem hay is fine as well.

  • Not feeding enough milk

    • Calves will naturally drink 10 L or more if available to them. Feeding 4L a day or less can lead to cross sucking due to hunger/lack of satiety.

  • Bucket feeding (not feeding from a nipple

    • Does not satisfy the need to suckle.

  • Using worn out nipples

    • New nipples that increase sucking time in turn decrease the sucking response after drinking.

  • Separation from other calves for 10 minutes after a feeding 

    • Could be a possible strategy, studies have shown that non-nutritive sucking is highest in the 10 minutes after finishing a milk meal, then wanes shortly after this. 

 

Calf health will be a major focus with the coming changes to the Code of Practice and subsequently ProAction, so keep it on your radar to discuss at upcoming herd health visits!