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Extension > Agriculture > Dairy Extension > Calves and heifers > You can group feed calves once per day?

You can group feed calves once per day?

Brad Heins, Assistant Professor
February 25, 2012

Group feeding of calves at West Central Research and Outreach Center dairy in Morris, MN.

Click image to enlarge

Yes! Really?? This is often the answer I receive when I speak about feeding dairy calves once per day. Or some are confused by feeding calves once a day. You probably think I am crazy, but let me tell you a little about how and why you can group feed calves once per day. Feeding group fed dairy calves once a day is very popular in New Zealand and other parts of the world where grazing dairy cattle is the norm. In Ireland, research has shown that calves can be fed successfully once per day, and the system utilizes less labor and may promote earlier weaning. However, because of the earlier weaning, calves may eat more grain.

Dairy replacement feeding and management systems have undergone major evolution in the last 25 to 30 years. As herd sizes increased, individual hutches were introduced to protect calves from contaminated and overcrowded environments. Recently, higher levels of milk feeding are recommended to promote early growth, and now some farmers are adopting extended suckling until calves are weaned. Group calf rearing offers opportunities to reduce labor and to aid in socializing calves, but performance of group managed calves in enlarged hutches is not well documented.

Maintaining the health and growth of dairy calves is very important in their first few months of life. For the University of Minnesota's organic dairy, no organic milk replacers are available, so whole milk from high somatic cell organic cows as well as bulk tank milk must be fed. By using whole milk, the casein in milk will clot and provide nutrition throughout the day for calves fed once per day. We have an on-going research study at our organic dairy to evaluate the growth, health and, most importantly, the economic performance of dairy calves fed once per day and weaned at different ages.

During the spring of 2011, we evaluated group fed calves as part of a 2-year study. Calves were born from March to June 2011, and breed groups of calves were Holsteins (contemporary and 1964 genetics); crossbreds that including combinations of Holstein, Montbeliarde and Swedish Red for high-input confinement dairying, and crossbreds that included Holstein, Jersey, Swedish Red and Normande for low-input dairying. Calves were fed in groups of ten, and groups were fed 1.5% of birth weight of 13% total solids organic milk once daily and weaned when the group consumption averaged 2.0 lb of starter per calf per day. Calves were consuming about 11.5% of their birth weight in whole milk once a day. The average daily gain (lb) for breed groups was: Holstein (1.59), 1964 Holstein (1.34), High-input crossbreds (1.49), and Low-input crossbreds (1.32). From our preliminary results, adequate gain can be achieved in calves that were group fed once a day. Successful group feeding of organic dairy calves is enhanced with aggressive suckling during infancy and early consumption of high quality organic calf starter.

There are advantages and challenges of feeding calves once per day in a group feeding system.

Advantages are:

  1. labor for feeding calves is reduced, calves are socialized for group living,
  2. group learning occurs (especially for early starter consumption),
  3. calf growth is equal to individual housing,
  4. adequate growth of 0.75 to 1.5 lb per day may be achieved depending on milk feeding level, and
  5. calves are easier to bed and super hutches are easier to clean than individual hutches.

Challenges include:

  1. calves must be aggressive drinkers when they are grouped,
  2. weak calves must be separated,
  3. calf attendant must be a good observer,
  4. if age spread is large, the oldest calves will have delayed weaning or youngest calves will be weaned too soon,
  5. contagious disease may affect more calves, and
  6. it is more difficult to provide individual attention.

Tips for group management systems that feed calves once per day:

  1. Separate newborns from fresh cows ASAP and hand-feed colostrum.
  2. Train calf to drink from a firm nipple in an individual pen during colostrum feeding period.
  3. Do not add a new calf to a group until it is a fast aggressive sucker. Most are ready by the third day.
  4. Consider calves less than 65 lb to be at risk and to require careful observation, especially during winter.
  5. Feed at least 1.5% of birth weight of high quality milk. Calves fed >2% may have loose manure initially.
  6. Restrict range of age and size within a group when possible. One week range works well; more than 3 weeks increases milk feeding cost for the group as weaning is based on the youngest calf in the group.
  7. A super hutch works well for 8 to 10 calves.
  8. Leave the nipple feeder with the group so they suck the nipple instead of each other.
  9. Provide abundant water, bedding, and an outside exercise area.
  10. Wean when group average starter intake is 2.0 lb per day for 3 consecutive days.
  11. Calves should be fed at the same time each day and preferably early in the day.

For more information on feeding calves once per day, please contact Dr. Heins by phone (320-589-1711) or email(