Ahmadi, F., Ghasemi, E., Alikhani, M. et al. 2022. Effects of group housing and incremental hay supplementation in calf starters at different ages on growth performance, behavior, and health. Scientific Reports 12(1), 3190.
The present study examined the effects of age at group housing and age at incremental hay supplementation in calf starters from 7.5 to 15% (dry matter, DM) and their interaction on growth performance, behavior, health of dairy calves, and development of heifers through first breeding. A total of 64 calves (n = 16 calves/treatment, 8 male and 8 female) were randomly assigned to 4 treatments in a 2 × 2 factorial arrangement, with age at group housing (early = d 28 ± 2, EG vs. late = d 70 ± 2, LG; 4 calves per group) and age at incremental hay supplementation of calf starters from 7.5 to 15% of DM (early = d 42 ± 2 d, EH vs. late = d 77 ± 2, LH) as the main factors. All calves (female and male) were weaned at 63 days of age and observed until 90 days of age. Heifer calves were managed uniformly from 90 days of age until first calving to evaluate the long-term effects of treatment. No interactions were observed between age at group housing and age at incremental hay to calves on starter feed intake, performance, calf health and behavior, and heifer development through first breeding, which was contrary to our hypothesis. The age at which incremental hay supplementation was administered had no effect on starter feed intake, growth performance, or heifer development until first calving. When EG calves were compared with LG calves, nutrient intake (starter, total dry matter, metabolizable energy, neutral detergent fiber, starch, and crude protein), average daily gain, and final body weight increased. In addition, frequency of standing decreased and time and frequency of eating increased in EG calves compared to LG calves. Overall, early group housing leads to improved growth performance in dairy calves with no negative effects on calf health compared to late group housing.