Pre-weaned calves housed in groups perform better than individually-penned animals. Consequently, calf rearers in Scotland are being advised of the social housing benefits that come with grouping calves after a switch to computerised calf feeding.

“The opportunity to save labour, whilst also feeding the calf high volumes of milk to meet targets for optimal growth and ultimately lifetime productivity are the main attractions of computerised feeders. But feeding calves in groups from an early age also delivers other advantages,” points out Alan Smith, Scotland business manager with Volac.

“High milk fed calves are often reluctant to eat starter feed, but those housed in pairs from one week of age consume more starter before weaning compared with individually penned animals. This is because of peer stimulation. The more starter that is consumed before weaning, the better the rumen development, which leads to better growth in the weeks around weaning.”

Mr Smith added that introducing young calves to pen mates when they are a week old pays health dividends too.

“Once calves are introduced to a group pen and fed via a computerised feeder, it allows them to drink higher volumes of milk because multiple small meals can be provided on a regular basis throughout the day. This larger volume of milk provides the calf with more energy, which in turn improves its health and growth.”

Mr Smith recommends that calves should be individually housed for the first week of life before being moved into a pair or group. However, he stresses that young calves should always be housed in a separate calf unit to reduce the spread of disease from older cattle to more susceptible younger animals.

For those considering an investment in computerised feeding, here the company's top 10 tips for successful calf rearing:

1. Always follow best practice colostrum feeding protocols. Follow the 4Qs: Quantity, Quality, Quickly and sQueaky clean.

2. Feed enough milk. Offer at least six litres of milk per day from eight days of age through to 35 days of age. Ensure the peak milk allowance is reached by two weeks of age. Milk replacer levels should then be gradually reduced over a three-week period before weaning at day 56.

3. Mix milk accurately. Mix milk replacer at a minimum of 12.5% solids (125g per litre of mixed milk). If using a 26% crude protein milk replacer always mix at 15%.

4. Keep the feeder clean. Set the feeder to run the automated cleaning cycle twice a day (before the major feeding times).

5. Change and clean the teat daily. This will maintain teat integrity and hygiene.

6. Keep calf bedding clean. Add fresh bedding every two to three days to ensure it remains clean and dry.

7. Manage groups. The ideal group size is 12-15 calves per pen (with a maximum of 20 calves in a group). Always keep the age range to a minimum (ideally: a seven-day spread, maximum 21 days).

8. Provide an independent air space. House young calves in a separate unit to avoid them sharing air space with older animals.

9. Ventilate calf accommodation. Ensure a ready supply of fresh air.

10. Don’t forget solid feed and water! Always provide calf starter feed to encourage rumen development and clean, fresh water – both from day one.