They call it “the buddy system,” and with it, the calves couldn’t seem to happier.
Or at least that appears to be the case at McFarlandale Dairy in Watertown and Wagner Farms in Cecil.
Christine Bender, owner and herd manager at McFarlandale Dairy, and Laura Raatz, herd manager and calf manager at Wagner Farms, spoke about each farm’s individual experience with calf pairing during an April 28 Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin webinar.
Wagner Farms, where Raatz works with her parents, husband and brother, started their calf pairing program in 2017. Bender, who farms with her parents and husband, said that she spoke with Raatz before McFarlandale Dairy began doing calf pairing themselves in 2019.
But while the farms share that connection, each farm has implemented “the buddy system” in their own way. And that is good and normal, said Raatz, who noted that the calf pairing system that works at one farm won’t necessarily turn out to be the best way of doing things on another farm.
“A lot of times when I do some speaking, people ask, ‘Well, what is one thing that I can do to have the same success or do the exact same things you do on your dairy?’” Raatz said. “And my response is always, ‘Well, what works for me does not always work for you.’”
Before moving to paired calf housing, Wagner Farms was raising “nice, healthy calves” in individual hutches, “so there wasn’t really a need for the change (to paired housing), but we were interested in ... doing our job better,” Raatz said.
They decided to test out calf pairing in a way that would “allow those calves to tell us what they really wanted,” Raatz said. They undertook trial and test runs and did their own studies before deciding to make the switch fully, adjusting the system along the way.
Because calf pairing wasn’t being done in their area in the way Wagner Farms thought they wanted to try, they figured things out by trial and error, Raatz said.
Currently at Wagner Farms, calves share a “super hutch” based on a design the farm created, Raatz said. The original design, which featured a front gate, removable divider gate and shade curtain has been improved upon by AgriPlastics into a newer model.
The calves are kept separated in the hutch for a week before being paired with their buddy, Raatz said. Throughout the calf pairing program, Raatz said that from a management perspective, she emphasizes sanitation, communication, minimizing stress, recordkeeping and protocols.
Bender said she was challenged to think about paired housing by Jennifer Van Os, an animal welfare expert with UW-Madison, when Van Os when visiting McFarlandale Dairy to tour the farm and meet the producers. At that point, Bender said she didn’t know many people who were doing it, but after her conversation with Van Os, she attended some meetings she saw about the topic and spoke with Raatz about how calf pairing at Wagner Farms had been working before deciding to try it out.
At McFarlandale Dairy, the system they use is “very economical,” Bender said, and didn’t require many changes. Each calf still has an individual hutch, set a few feet away from the calf’s buddy’s, Bender said. The outdoor hutches share an outdoor fenced enclosure, but until the calves are at least a few weeks old, a removable divider — which the farm created themselves — in that enclosure keeps the pair separated.
Bender said that they choose to keep the calves separated for that amount of time to go beyond the point (7-14 days) at which calf scours may be a challenge and because a few weeks in is the point at which calves will be at peak milk under the farm’s feeding program.
Once that mark is achieved, the divider is removed, and the calves are free to be as close together as they want.
For the most part, that’s very close.
“We almost always see them laying in the same hutch or laying together outside,” Bender said.
“When one comes to eat, the other will come to eat,” she said.
While Raatz and Bender each have a different approach to how and when the calves are paired, in addition to other differences in feeding programs, their findings have been similar.
In both instances the calves have seemed to embrace being paired up.
“I think the biggest advantage of paired calf housing is the social benefit,” Bender said.
“Cows and calves are natural herd animals, so they prefer to be together,” Raatz said.
Also, calf pairing has made the post-weaning transition to bigger groups easier.
Post-weaning at McFarlandale Dairy, the calves are moved into pens with groups of six, Bender said. The calf pairing system has made a noticeable difference in how the calf adjust to life after the hutch.
“When they get to go to a group setting, they already are familiar with their buddy,” Bender said.
“It used to be common we would see them beller or cry for the first few days,” she said. “And we don’t really see that anymore.”
When the calves move into a calf barn, Raatz said, the pair’s bond continues as they still sleep together and eat together.
Both Raatz and Bender said they had seen improvements in eating as well.
Bender said there’s also a benefit in terms of consumer perspective of paired calf housing in that consumers are able to see the calves being happy with their buddy.
Calf pairing can, of course, have potential issues, too.
Both farms have faced challenges with sucking, with the farms trying a variety of methods to address the issue.
Size and age difference between calves also has the potential to be a problem, Bender said.
But assuming that the farm has a manager that is willing embrace change and work to address the potential problems that can come with change, Bender said, “I think if you try it, you’re going to go to paired housing.”