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Group Housing and Feeding of Calves

Miriam Weber Nielsen and Mike VandeHaar
Dept. of Animal Science

Benefits and Risks
Automated feeding of calves offers proven benefits for calf managers and calves. Results on Michigan farms with group feeding and housing show that systems can work on farms of various sizes and can enhance calf growth. These systems allow calves access to liquid feed around the clock in a less labor-intensive manner than traditional feeding methods. Advantages for calf managers include smaller, more frequent meals for calves; consistency in feeding; reduced labor needs; and flexibility in labor tasks. Benefits for calves include increased activity, social stimulation, and enhanced growth. The public image of calves provided greater freedom for activity and free-choice feeding is also more positive than conventional systems. Disadvantages include risk for disease transfer in group-housed calves and cross-sucking.  
Evaluation of potential benefits of high allowance of milk replacer has demonstrated a tendency for improved milk production in one Michigan State study (Rincker et al., 2011) and no significant effect in the three other published, peer-reviewed studies (Raeth-Knight et al., 2009; Morrison et al., 2009; Terre et al., 2009). Although a recently published study (Soberon et al., 2012) reported that maximizing calf growth rates through higher intake of liquid feed increases milk yield, no controls or treatments were used in the study and intake of colostrum and calf starter was not considered. Calves that grew faster than their herdmates did produce more milk as cows, indicating that slower-growing calves, including those that experienced sickness or antibiotic treatment, may be better candidates for culling.

Then vs. Now
Individual housing and feeding of calves has been considered the gold standard for housing for many years. We have learned over time that limiting contact of calves with their dams and with other calves is particularly effective in disease control. Within 24 h of birth, most calves are separated from their dam, housed individually and fed a minimum 10% of body weight two times per day. A main goal of the pre-weaning period has been to provide nutrients for maintenance and growth while limiting milk feeding to facilitate transition of calves from milk to dry feed. This was done in part to limit costs of the milk-feeding program and also to reduce the substantial labor in feeding milk to calves.
Research in the past 15 years permits re-evaluation of challenges and opportunities of different calf-raising systems. In contrast to the usual twice daily feeding, calves left with their dam will consume up to 10 meals per day and substantially more milk (Albright and Arave, 1997). Not surprisingly, calves consuming more frequent meals and a higher volume of milk gain weight faster. Research from multiple institutions in Europe and the United States demonstrated that feeding more milk or milk replacer than the standard 10% of body weight had no detrimental effects on mammary development (Sejrsen et al., 2000; Brown et al., 2005; Meyer et al., 2006) and future milk production (Foldager and Krohn, 1994, Bar-Peled et al., 1997; Rincker et al., 2011). Together with the availability of computerized milk feeders, this knowledge has helped to promote adoption of strategies to feed calves more liquid feed during the pre-weaning stage. Further, group housing of calves has been gaining in popularity in other countries in part for the perceived benefit of more social interaction and the potential for labor savings.

Types of feeders
Popular methods of group feeding calves include computerized feeders and farm-fabricated feeders using acidified milk. Computerized feeders involve systems that deliver warmed milk to calves in predetermined amounts. For liquid feed, calves receive either saleable or waste milk, or milk replacer. Feeder models currently available in the U.S. are by Holm & Laue, Forster-Technik and Urban. As with any feeding system for calves, proper maintenance and calibration of computerized feeders are essential to normal function and calf health. Failures in delivery or mixing of milk replacer or in sanitation can result in underfed calves or exposure to disease-causing bacteria. Although intervals between cleaning vary among farms, feeders should be cleaned and disinfected frequently, avoiding times of high feeding activity by calves. Lines and nipples should be replaced and systems involving delivery of milk replacer powder should be calibrated on a regular schedule.
When farm-fabricated feeders are used to provide free access to milk, acidification of milk or milk replacer preserves milk for 1 to 3 days. Formic acid is commonly used as a preservative, although less corrosive acids are available. Acidified milk should be kept cool to limit bacterial growth, and requires regular stirring several times per day. Milk is delivered to calves via inexpensive homemade containers with hoses and nipples attached.

Allowing calves free access to milk permits calves to drink more meals per day if access is not limited by automatic feeders. Calves allowed to stay with their dam will suckle as frequently as 10 times per day during the first few weeks, with nursing frequency declining to 3 to 5 times per day thereafter with no change in duration of suckling (Day et al., 1987). In one study, calves allowed free access consumed up to 2.5 gallons of milk per day (Jasper and Weary, 2002), averaging more than 2 gallons per day throughout the preweaning period.
If a computerized feeder provides the milk, the feeder usually delivers a limited amount of milk to individual calves at computer-controlled intervals. Visits to the feeder when no milk is available for a certain calf are referred to as “unrewarded visits”.  Default settings on the feeders are usually programmed for smaller, more frequent milk portions by setting a minimum number of milk portions of a maximum size. If a calf does not consume her full portion, the leftover milk is available in a later additional portion. Setting the milk portion size at a high level and a low minimum number of portions allows individual calves some choice in meal size and number of meals per day, in a meal pattern more similar to suckling (Jensen, 2009). If a low allowance of milk is offered at each meal or the total allowance of milk is low, calves tend to spend more time on non-nutritive suckling at the feeder or in cross-sucking. This behavior occurs because the calf is still hungry or the calf’s natural suckling behavior stimulated by the taste of milk has not been satisfied during consumption of a small portion size.
Solids content of some milk replacers prepared according to tag directions is higher than that of milk. One Michigan farm observed less scours when milk replacer delivered with a computerized feeder was diluted to a concentration more similar to whole milk. Calves on that farm consume the same amount of solids as before, in a total volume of up to 3.5 gallons/day.
To reduce milk consumption per day, and thus gradually wean calves, researchers have found that it is more effective to reduce number of meals allowed per day instead of reducing milk allowed per meal (Jensen, 2006). Gradual weaning can increase calf starter consumption to avoid a growth slump, and reduces cross-sucking during the period immediately after weaning (Nielsen et al., 2008).

The first 1 to 2 weeks
Successful transition of calves into group housing with automated feeders requires vigorous calves with a strong suckling reflex. Depending on calf management, calves will be ready to move into group housing as young as 2 or 3 days of age. Recommendations for age of introduction vary, with some farms housing calves individually for 7 to 14 days before moving to group housing. The timing of the transition will depend on a given farm’s colostrum management program, the health of each calf, the available facilities, and the age range of the group into which new calves are being introduced. Regardless, calves should be drinking milk well and appear healthy before moving the calf into group housing.  It’s worth noting that some calves will attain their maximum daily intake of milk already by 4 to 5 days of age.
After movement into a group, calves require daily observation to detect sick animals and treat them promptly.  A combination of direct observation of calves by the calf manager and, on farms with automatic milk feeders, data on number of visits to the feeder are useful for monitoring.

Automatic feeders require a shift to group housing of calves. In the past, calves were often group-housed in available existing facilities rather than in facilities specifically designed for that purpose. As a result, calves were housed in barns with lactating cows, or in other facilities that had suboptimal ventilation. In addition, less was known about management practices to maximize passive immunity of calves. A surge in interest in calf management practices in the past 10 years has highlighted the importance of colostrum, sanitation, adequate nutrition and ventilation. These factors are critical to raising healthy calves regardless of the type of housing involved.
Similar to older animals, calves will perform best in clean, dry, comfortable and well-ventilated housing with free access to palatable feed and water. An “all-in, all-out” management approach to groups of calves is one strategy to reduce disease risk. Group housing of calves does require excellent management. Farms that are challenged with high rates of sickness or death among calves may benefit from automated feeding systems that deliver more milk to calves; however, existing limitations to cleanliness or good ventilation will need to be addressed before nutritional benefits are realized.

Role of the calf manager
Use of automated milk feeders reduces the time and labor associated with feeding calves by as much as half on some farms. In addition, the systems remove variability associated with people preparing and delivering feed to calves. The type of labor needed also differs. With the increased risk of disease associated with group housing, the calf manager must be able to identify sick calves through observation, take steps to limit exposure of other calves and treat affected animals. Time spent on mixing, feeding and cleaning can instead be spent to monitor calf performance.
Removing the commitment to feed calves at certain times each day also provides more flexibility for the calf manager’s schedule. The calf manager should be adept at monitoring the automated feeding equipment on a regular schedule to ensure correct mixing and delivery of the desired quantity of milk to calves. The cleaning system for the feeder also must  be checked to confirm it is working properly.

Management and nutrition of calves is an important investment in the future productivity of a dairy herd. Automated feeders can be a useful tool in a successful calf-raising program, allowing calves to grow to their full potential while taking advantage of the benefits of group housing. Excellent calf management is required to benefit from use of group feeding and housing.


Albright, L.L., and C.W. Arave. 1997. The Behaviour of Cattle. CAB International, Wallingford, United Kingdom.

Bar-Peled, U., B. Robinzon, E. Maltz, H. Tagari, Y. Folman, I. Bruckental, H. Voet, H. Gacitua, and A.R. Lehrer. 1997. Increased weight gain and effects on production parameters of Holstein heifers that were allowed to suckle. J. Dairy Sci. 80:2523-2528.

Brown, E.G., M.J. VandeHaar, K.M. Daniels, J.S. Liesman, L.T. Chapin, J.W. Forrest, R.M. Akers, R.E. Pearson, and M.S. Weber Nielsen. 2005. Effect of increasing energy and protein intake on mammary development in heifer calves. J. Dairy Sci. 88:595-603.

Foldager, J., and C.C. Krohn. 1994. Heifer calves reared on very high or normal levels of whole milk from birth to 6-8 weeks of age and their subsequent milk production. Proc. Soc. Nutr. Physiol. 3. (Abstr.)

Jasper, J. and D.M. Weary. 2002. Effects of ad libitum milk intake on dairy calves. J. Dairy Sci. 85:3054-3058.

Jensen, M. 2006. Computer-controlled milk feeding of group housed calves: the effect of milk allowance and weaning type. J. Dairy Sci. 89:201-206.

Jensen, M. 2009. Short communication: Milk meal pattern of dairy calves is affected by computer-controlled milk feeder set-up. J. Dairy Sci. 92:2906-2910.

Meyer, M.J., A.V. Capuco, D. A. Ross, L.M. Lintault, and M. E. Van Amburgh. 2006. Developmental and nutritional regulation of the prepubertal heifer mammary gland: I. Parenchyma and fat pad mass and composition. J. Dairy Sci. 89:4289-4297.

Nielsen, P.P., M. B. Jensen, and L. Lidfors. 2008. Milk allowance and weaning method affect the use of a computer-controlled milk feeder and the development of cross-sucking in dairy calves. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 109:223-237.

Rincker, L.E.D., M.J. VandeHaar, C.A. Wolf, J.S. Liesman, L.T. Chapin, and M.S. Weber Nielsen. 2011. Effects of intensified feeding of heifer calves on growth, pubertal age, calving age, milk yield and economics. J. Dairy Sci. 94:3554-3567.

Sejrsen, K., S. Purup, M. Vestergaard, and J. Foldager. 2000. High body weight gain and reduced bovine mammary growth: physiological basis and implications for milk yield. Domest. Anim. Endocrinol. 19:93-104.

USDA. 2007. Dairy 2007, Part I: Reference of dairy cattle health and management in the United States, 2007. USDA-APHIS-VS, CEAH #N480.1007. National Animal Health Monitoring System, Fort Collins, CO.
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