Weaning is a critical transition period for young dairy calves. Under traditional cow-calf operations in the beef industry the calf stays with the cow through the milk feeding period. Through this time the calf has access to the mother’s milk and learns socially with the mother to graze and ruminate as early as three weeks of age. During weaning there is a nutritional disruption when the calf is separated from the mother’s milk and a social disruption when the calf is separated from the mother’s contact. In commercial dairy farms the nutritional and social distress events are separate because the calf is taken away from the mother within a few hours of birth and fed milk from a bottle or bucket until weaning. When the cow and calf are separated at an early stage the calf’s social interactions may be limited, which could interfere with the development of skills, like eating solids at an earlier age.
In 2006, 68% of pre-weaned heifer calves in the U. S. were primarily raised in individual pens or hutches and 15% were raised in a type of group system (NAHMS, 2007). Individual housing of pre-weaned calves is normally recommended to reduce the spread of disease. However, there has been increasing interest in group housed systems as a way to reduce labor and also improve welfare by providing calves, who are social animals, social contact with peers. The question that you might ask however is: is the social interaction with their peers a good “substitute” for the learned behaviors a calf would get from its mother? Several studies have evaluated the impact of pair and group settings through the milk feeding and weaning stages and the impact on starter intake, growth and stress. Typically calves on these studies have been fed a limited volume of milk (4 L/day). Calves that are housed as a group have been shown to begin eating grain at an earlier age than do individually housed calves. Also, when calves are able to eat near each other social facilitation occurs, resulting in an increased intake and better growth rates. Even pair housed calves, when compared to individually housed calves, have also been shown to reduce the stress of weaning and improved performance after weaning.
These are all examples of grouping strategies during the milk feeding phase, but what about the 68% of calves that are fed individually? Typically calves are housed individually because they are the most susceptible to disease and we wait to group them until after weaning. With all of this supporting evidence of improved gains and earlier consumption of starter in group settings, can we incorporate that into a grouping strategy of these individual calves around weaning? But why wait until after weaning to group calves when they can use that social contact from their peers to support them through weaning? One study evaluated calves that were grouped 6 days before weaning into a small group of 8 calves and those calves had greater average daily gain (ADG) than calves that were grouped at 56 days, when they were weaned and then moved.
The weaning transition period is of economic concern to the producer as well as a factor in animal health and well-being in regards to the calf. Creating nutritionally and socially stable plans for calves as they transition through the weaning period is essential. On farm and research settings have both addressed grouping strategies and health and performance parameters during the milk fed stage, but I would encourage all to consider different grouping strategies that could improve the transition through the weaning process so that calves can keep on track to become productive members of the herd.
The Miner Institute Farm Report is written primarily for farmers and other agricultural professionals in the Northeastern U.S. and Eastern Canada. Most articles deal with dairy and crops topics, but also included are articles dealing with environmental issues and global agriculture as well as editorial commentary.
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