Group Housing

Raising calves gets social on dairies
By Tina Wright

Kathie Arnold of Twin Oaks Dairy feeds 1 gallon of milk per calf per feeding twice a day.
Photos by Tina Wright.

There is a quiet revolution happening in dairy calf management. Many dairy farmers are feeding calves more milk or milk replacer than in the past, and many calves are starting their lives with other calves in group pens. For years, the individual calf hutch was the standard housing unit, but now calves are often either "buddied up" with another calf in a double hutch or raised in groups of up to 20 calves that are close in age.

In addition, some farmers are dropping the old practice of getting a calf to drink from a pail as soon as possible. Instead, calves are sucking milk or replacer from a nipple, either from a simple mob feeder (basically just a barrel or trough with enough nipples for every calf to suck at once) or from automatic calf feeders that use a computerized system to allow individual calves to suck a communal nipple and get a programmed amount for each calf every day.

This change is industry-wide, from large conventional dairies to small organic dairies. Demko Farms milks 1,200 cows in northern New York, and they have used an automatic calf feeding system, also called a robot, since August 2012 in a state-of-the-art calf barn with group pens for 15 to 20 calves in each pen. Twin Oaks Dairy in central New York is a 130-cow organic operation that raises calves as close to outside as possible in small groups that are fed communally with mob feeders.

Young calves at a mob feeder at Twin Oaks organic dairy in Truxton, N.Y.

Lonely no more

An article in Hoard's Dairyman magazine (August 25, 2013) cited figures from the USDA that found 15 percent of dairies were using group housing for young calves in 2007, a figure that has surely grown since then. Christa Kurman and Peter Krawczel from the University of Tennessee's Department of Animal Science say that robotic feeders or nipple feeders substantially reduced labor costs and management time for calves.

"Group housing also provides a more natural environment for calves and may help reduce stress," they wrote. A University of British Columbia study found that paired calves raised in hutches with a buddy handled weaning stress much better than individually raised calves. While noting the expense of computerized calf feeding systems, the researchers estimated that savings in labor costs could pay off a robot system in three years for dairy herds consisting of 200 to 300 cows.

Large herd

Jean Demko starts 500 Holstein calves a year on her family farm in Lowville, N.Y. About five years ago, in her mid-50s, Demko was looking for a way to keep running the calf division without sacrificing her body. Years of hauling and dumping gallons and gallons of milk replacer had taken their toll.

The Demko farm team (Jean, her husband, John, and her son, Jerome) did some globe-trotting to size up different calf-raising ideas. "We went out to Iowa and South Dakota. We went to Vermont and places in New York, several different calf facilities," Demko said. However, for years there was always something else on the farm that came first, until it was finally time to build a new calf facility. "In hindsight, I'm glad it was done that way, because technology changed, and I'm glad that I've got what I have now," she added.

The Demkos have a passive ventilated barn, really a one-of-a-kind building, designed by Cornell University's Curt Gooch. The south wall has air ducts with holes in them that can be opened or shut. Fans blow air through them (east to west), so you don't even feel a draft as the air flows through the building and exits, at least partly, through a grate at your feet just north of the calf pens. Propane heat can be blown in when the outside temperature is below zero.

They installed four automatic milk feeding stations that serve large, open pens, usually with 15 to 20 calves in each group that are about the same age. With eight nipples available, each feeding station can serve two pens with two separate mixer bowls that heat milk (or mix water and milk replacer powder) in a matter of seconds when a calf approaches the nipple. The Holm & Laue automatic calf feeding system recognizes each individual calf by a button transponder in its ear and allows each calf to drink only its programmed amount of pasteurized waste milk.

This calf is feeding from a robotic feeder at Demko Farms.

The software starts newborns on a schedule of 2.2 liters of milk per half day and gradually raises the half-day allotment to 3.8 liters when calves are 12 to 42 days old. At that point, the milk allotment begins to scale back gradually until weaning.

When they were researching calf ideas, European dairy farmers told the Demkos that feeding calves twice a day was not enough. Demko explained, "They say you're starving your calves feeding them twice a day, and you are ... now our calf health and weight gains are excellent. I'm getting growth that exceeds 2 pounds a day. That's weaning at about 56 days. I've learned that [with] multiple feedings per day combined with milk you definitely see faster growth and healthier calves."

The calves seem to have oceans of space as they lounge in freshly chopped hay. There is no telltale smell of ammonia, as there often is in many calf facilities. In fact, Demko's calves have at least 34 square feet of space, far more than the recommendations from the University of Minnesota Dairy Extension that require 16 square feet minimum for group housing of calves. Demko loves the building, and she thinks it's the only way to go with calves. They can keep the environment pretty much the same year-round. In the coldest weather, the new calves wear blankets for the first three weeks.

Smaller herd

Kathie Arnold milks 130 cows with her husband, Rick, and son, Kirk, in Truxton, N.Y. They start 55 to 60 calves a year. Organic since 1998, Twin Oaks Dairy has mostly Holsteins, with some crosses. They raise calves outside in portable shelters during the growing season and feed calves in small groups, three to five in a pen, using mob feeders with nipples.

Calves get 1 gallon of milk twice a day until they're eight weeks old, and then they're weaned by going to once-a-day feeding. At 10 weeks, they are fully weaned unless there is excess waste milk, in which case they'll go a little longer.

Twin Oaks was intensely grazing its cows even before going organic, so calves were introduced to pasture right away, nibbling fine grass as newborns. However, a few years ago, a bad run of coccidiosis and very sick calves caused the Arnolds to reconsider their strategy.

The calf barn at Demko Farms was designed by Curt Gooch, an agricultural engineer with Cornell University's PRO-DAIRY program.

Arnold explained, "The last couple of years, we have kept the young calves in the group pens in the FarmTek coverall [building] until about 8 to 10 weeks, and then they go out to the small paddocks. They don't take to pasture quite as well as when started on pasture from day one, but we haven't had any more issues with cocci."

Conventional calf-raising protocols suggest giving calves starter grain before hay, but Arnold chooses to use a different approach. "We always offer quality fine-stemmed grass/clover hay from within a few days of birth before we offer grain - the opposite of what many conventional advisors suggest. But hay seems much more a natural part of their diet. When we were putting newborns on pasture, they were nibbling on pasture within the first few days of their life, so this hay seems the next best thing," she explained.

In the Hoard's Dairyman article, the researchers caution farmers to make sure that every calf in a group situation is strong enough to suckle well, and that small or weaker calves are not bullied from the feeder. This is especially important in mob feeding. They found that automatic feeding systems were a little more forgiving, and that smaller or shyer calves were eating more milk at a time to get their full allotment from the robot.

The author is a freelance contributor based near Ithaca, N.Y., specializing in dairy and organics, but dabbling in all things agricultural. Comment or question? Visit http://www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.