Housing Systems: Calves (Pre-Weaning)

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Source: National Farm Animal Care Council

Code of Practice for the care and handling of farm animals – Dairy Cattle, Section 2.2.1

Whether housing calves individually, in pairs, or in groups, several management strategies are key to keeping calves healthy and thriving, especially hygiene, clean bedding, air quality, colostrum management, and attentive daily observation to detect the earliest signs of illness.

The stress that calves experience (e.g., from isolation, during weaning) impacts their disease susceptibility, growth, and welfare by decreasing feed intake and by negatively impacting their immune system. Research shows that raising calves in pairs or small groups can reduce stress and improve calf growth, welfare, and learning ability (10). Calves housed with a companion or in a group spend more time feeding, are less fearful, and cope better with novelty (11). Early paired/grouped calves vocalize less during weaning, have healthier eating patterns after weaning, and resume feeding much sooner when moved into larger groups after weaning (12, 13). The behavioural, cognitive, and performance advantages of social housing occur when calves are paired/grouped early (14, 15, 16) (ideally by 2–3 weeks of age). Calves’ strong motivation for social contact (17, 18) is best met by providing full physical contact.

Research results on the impact of social housing on calf health are mixed. While some farms manage large groups successfully, the most consistent finding is a higher occurrence of respiratory disease in larger groups (>8–10 calves) compared to small groups or if air quality is poor (17). No clear trends in calf health (disease incidence, number of treatments, mortality) have been reported in studies comparing individual and group housing methods that have the same milk feeding system and allowance (11). Higher mortality has been found in large groups (>10 calves) compared to individual housing, but no differences have been found between small groups (<7–10 calves) and individual housing (17).

Transitioning to group housing methods necessitates careful planning and implementation to ensure good outcomes. Good management includes evaluating the health status and compatibility of individual calves before they are paired/grouped. Management factors that reduce disease risk in group housing systems include all-in/all-out management, reducing group size (<8–10 calves/pen), and increasing space allowance. Research shows that feeding and weaning strategies can reduce the occurrence of cross sucking (refer to Section 3.3 – Nutrition and Feeding Management for Calves).

Hutches are a good housing option when they provide access to outdoor areas and improved air quality (critical for calf health), and permit social interactions by virtue of their design, size, or the way in which they are arranged.

Tethering of calves is not permitted in some Canadian Codes of Practice and has been phased out in other countries. This Code of Practice only allows calves to be tethered to hutches if calves have additional benefits of an outdoor area and therefore fresh air and increased space allowance. However, farmers are strongly encouraged to use hutches that allow calves to have untethered freedom of movement and social interactions to align with the long-term social sustainability of the industry, research on consumer/public viewpoints, and the future direction for dairy cattle housing more generally.

 

REQUIREMENTS

For all calf housing systems:

Housing must allow calves to easily stand up, lie down, turn completely around, stand fully upright (without touching the top of the enclosure), adopt sternal and lateral resting postures, groom themselves, and have visual contact with other cattle. 

The bedded area for group-housed calves must be large enough to allow all calves to rest comfortably at the same time.

Where tethering of calves is permitted, the tether must include a collar.

For indoor calf housing:

Calves must not be tethered as part of normal indoor housing.

Producers raising calves individually must develop a plan to transition to pair/group housing methods, in consultation with a veterinarian or other qualified advisor. 

Effective April 1, 2031, calves that are healthy, thriving, and compatible must be housed in pairs or groups by 4 weeks of age.1

Hutches and other outdoor housing:

Calves housed outdoors, including in hutches, must have physical contact with another calf unless they need to be separated for health reasons or they need to be protected from inclement weather.

Calves may be tethered only if housed in hutches that provide access to an area outside the hutch.

RECOMMENDED PRACTICES

  1. select hutches that optimize social interactions (e.g., 2 hutches together with a shared outdoor space, hutches designed for pairs/small groups)
  2. use observations of calf appearance, behaviour, growth, disease, and mortality to evaluate the success of any calf housing system
  3. group calves of similar size and age together to minimize disease risk and competition at feeding
  4. once groups are formed, keep them as stable as possible (introducing a younger calf to an older group, or vice versa, can increase disease risk and competition)
  5. where feasible, manage groups in an all-in/all-out method to minimize disease transmission and permit effective cleaning and disinfection.