Group Housing Dairy Calves
Updated: June 14, 2021
By Sarah Potts

Group Housing of Pre-weaned Calves: Yay or Nay?

Traditionally, pre-weaned dairy calves are housed in individual pens, and over 70% of U.S. dairy producers house their calves in individual pens before weaning according to the USDA’s most recent report on Dairy Cattle Management Practices in the United States.  According to the USDA, nearly 40% of pre-weaned calves are housed in outdoor hutches and over 30% are housed indoors in individual pens.  However, recent attention has been given to potential benefits of group-housing of pre-weaned calves.  A recent article, published in the Journal of Dairy Science (Costa et al., 2016; J. Dairy Sci. 99:2453), reviewed the benefits and challenges associated with group-housing of pre-weaned calves and provides a detailed overview of the topic.


  • Ruminants learn how and what to eat based on social cues
  • Group housing can increase starter intake and growth
  • Group housing improves response to stress and new experiences
  • Could have a long­term impact on how they adapt to changes that occur throughout their lives
  • Pitfalls if group­housing is not well­managed:
    • Disease transmission
    • Cross-suckling
    • Competition


Studies investigating group-housing of pre-weaned calves initially quantified potential benefits through changes in growth and feed intake.  Several of these studies show that calves housed in pairs or small groups of 3 to 6 during the milk-feeding period have greater average daily gains.  These improvements are typically associated with increased starter grain intake, which is speculated to be the result of both social learning and the stimulatory effect, as many animals rely on social cues to learn what and when to eat.  Earlier grain consumption not only improves average daily gain during the pre-weaning period, but may also help initiate rumen development to better prepare calves for the post-weaning period. 

More recent studies have examined the effect of this management approach on other indicators of welfare, including emotional, social, and cognitive abilities.  Traditional approaches and thinking gave little room to consider effects of management on these factors; however, their importance to performance is now being examined across the many stages of an animal’s life.  Studies show that calves housed individually often possess poor social skills and have a lower capacity for social learning and coping with novel environments.  Because dairy cattle are social animals and are often housed in groups for most of their lives, the ability to interact and form social relationships is important.  Likewise, flexibility and the ability to cope with changes in their environment is also important.  Producers should strive to help animals develop social competency and flexibility because these skills may have implications for the many transitions (both management and physiological) that occur throughout their lives.  Animals who possess these skills may conceivably be more productive in the long-run.  However, studies that investigate the long-term impacts of social housing of pre-weaned calves are virtually non-existent, so further research is required.


Despite potential benefits, many producers are hesitant to adopt this type of management system due to a number of concerns.  The main premise of individualized calf housing is to limit disease transmission to reduce calf morbidity and mortality.  Indeed, contagious diseases are more readily transmissible via direct contact, which is usually prohibited with individual housing.  Studies have examined the impact of pair- and/or group-housing on incidence of disease in pre-weaned calves and results are inconclusive: some studies show no difference in calf morbidity while others show a slight increase with social housing.  It has been shown that group size is associated with morbidity rates, with larger groups (greater than 6) being more likely to have increased rates. Group stability likely also has an impact on the health of pre-weaned calves housed together. The fact that some studies show no difference in morbidity between housing methods suggests that pair- or group-housing of pre-weaned calves can be successful if the calf program is well-managed and calves are provided appropriate neonatal care, good nutrition, and a clean, dry, and well-ventilated environment. 

The ability to give calves individualized attention is certainly an argument for individual housing methods, as this becomes more difficult with pair- or group-housing.  Producers must be more vigilant and attentive to calves housed in pairs or small groups in order to detect early signs of illness and to ensure that each calf is performing well.  Housing calves individually also makes milk-feeding time simpler by eliminating competition and makes it easy to ensure that each calf receives its daily allotment of milk.  Some producers who utilize pair- or group-housing without an automated feeder work around this challenge by temporarily separating calves during feeding time.

Cross-suckling is another major concern often expressed by producers who are considering the implementation of pair- or group-housing of calves, as it can have long-term implications for milk production.  Investigations of this issue in pair- or group-housed pre-weaned calves are inconclusive, with some indicating a high prevalence of cross-suckling and others reporting none.  A few practical suggestions for minimizing the potential of cross-suckling in calves housed in group settings include feeding milk via a teat as opposed to a bucket and providing a “dry teat” for suckling needs between feedings.  As cross-suckling often becomes more common after weaning, allowing for a more gradual weaning process and ensuring starter grain intake is sufficient before weaning may also help mitigate potential cross-suckling issues.

Producers interested in implementing group-housing of pre-weaned calves on their farm should first consider their current housing system and whether revised housing methods would be conducive to calf health.  They should also consider how they would manage milk feeding time to ensure adequate milk consumption by all calves and make sure that each calf is visually observed for signs of illness at each feeding.  Veterinarians, extension agents, and other dairy producers who have adopted this management system are great resources and can provide insight and suggestions for success.

This article appears on the March 11, 2021, Volume 2, Issue 1 of the Maryland Milk Moo's newsletter.

Maryland Milk Moo's, March 2021, Vol.2, Issue 1

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