The Effect of Group Size on Health and Growth Rate of Swedish Dairy Calves Housed in Pens With Automatic Milk-Feeders

Prev Vet Med. 2006 Jan 16;73(1):43-53. doi: 10.1016/j.prevetmed.2005.08.021. Epub 2005 Sep 26.


Group pens equipped with automatic milk-feeding systems are increasingly being used for young dairy calves in Sweden. The system is, however, associated with an increased risk of clinical respiratory-tract disease and a reduced growth rate. In an experimental study we compared the health and growth rate of two different group sizes of calves (6-9 versus 12-18) kept in pens with automatic milk-feeders. The experiment was performed from September 2002 to February 2004, in nine commercial dairy farms in south-west Sweden. Each farm was equipped with two pens with automatic milk-feeders and no possibility of direct contact between calves from different pens. The calves were housed individually until 3-35 (median, 12) days of age, and then were allocated to one of the two group pens by random-number lists. Altogether 892 calves were studied: 297 in the small- and 595 in the large-sized groups. The calves' heart girths were measured at birth and at 56 days of age. Blood samples for analysis of serum haptoglobin concentration (S-Hp) were collected once for each calf, at four to eight weeks of age. Diseases were recorded by the farmers and by a veterinarian, who visited the farms every third week and physically examined all the calves. The effects of group size on the risks of diarrhoea, clinical respiratory-tract disease and increased respiratory sounds, and on the growth rate and S-Hp were evaluated using multiple logistic- and linear-regression models with herd as fixed effect. Age at transfer to group pen, breed, immunoglobulin concentration of colostrum received, parity of the dam and presence of diarrhoea before transfer to the group pen, season, sex, year, and, in the analysis of growth rate, birth heart girth were extra explanatory variables. Calves in pens for 12-18 calves had a higher incidence of respiratory illness (OR: 1.4) and grew 0.022 cm/day less than calves housed in groups of 6-9 animals (equivalent to approximately 40 g/day). We detected no differences between calves kept in the small-sized versus the large-sized groups in terms of risk of diarrhoea or mean S-Hp. We concluded that housing calves in groups of under 10 calves is preferable from a health and growth perspective.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animal Husbandry / methods*
  • Animals
  • Animals, Suckling
  • Cattle / growth & development*
  • Female
  • Haptoglobins / metabolism
  • Housing, Animal*
  • Male
  • Random Allocation
  • Sweden


  • Haptoglobins