For some context, I raise sale barn bull calves for processing. I run 200 calves through my nursery every 67 days, all in all out. The calves are housed in individual pens for the first 60 days. They are moved into 25 head group pens at 200 lbs and 60 days old. My family and I raise them from bucket to market. We get the calves in anywhere from 2-5 days old at 80-95 lbs and raise them as finished steers at 17 months of age 14-1450 lbs. It's has been my experience that the first few weeks in the nursery will define that calf through the finishing lot. I double a calf's bodyweight off 56 lbs of milk replacer per head and regularly have less than 2% death loss. Calves transition into group pens at 60 days old without hesitation or plateau in gains. The individual pens help me do this successfully and here is how.
1.) ASSESSING INTAKES ACCURATELY.
-MILK: Feeding in independent pens ensures all calves get their milk. However, in group pens, unless you have headgates, you can find it a challenge to prevent the quick drinkers from pushing the smaller, weaker calves out of the way to drink their milk. With the individual pens, I know without a doubt exactly how much each calf drinks, and I can respond appropriately. One of the first signs a calf is ill is decreased appetite, so a calf that drinks slower than the others or does not drink all of its milk is a calf that will most likely require some extra attention. (Group pens with calves in auto feeders provide excellent data to see this too!) Identifying these calves that have backed off milk allows me to be proactive with electrolytes and treatments. Individual pens allow me to leave electrolytes for that calf throughout the day.
-WATER: By housing the calves individually, I know how much water each calf regularly drinks. (Group pens with calves on auto feeders provide excellent data to see this too!)
-CALF STARTER: Calf starter intake is vital for rumen development and weaning calves successfully. Individually housing calves allows you to track calf starter intakes. Once you know how much calf starter each calf regularly eats, you can be proactive when a calf is not eating enough calf starter. Talk with your veterinarian about vitamin deficiencies or probiotics that can be given to boost starter intakes in advance to ensure your calf is eating enough starter before you begin weaning. When successfully weaning calves that are eating enough calf starter, you should not see a plateau, a loss in gains, or an increase in sick calves.
2.) DISEASE PREVENTION. Individual pens are more forgiving when you have an outbreak of a contagious pathogen. The lack of nose-to-nose contact will help prevent the spread of illness from calf to calf. After the first 10-14 days in my facility, most of the calves are over the initial scours they came in with, and I rarely have to treat a calf. The individual pen also gives us time to get vaccines into the calves. There isn't much you can do for things like BVD and Salmonella Dublin other than being proactive and vaccinating. Individual pens allow you to isolate these illnesses to the infected calves while vaccinating the rest of the herd before being exposed to one another.
3.) OBSERVATION. Individually housing calves makes identifying, tracking, and treating sick calves easy. We can quickly identify a sick calf by assessing milk, water, and feed intakes. One of the first signs a calf is sick is its lack of appetite. Individual pens allow you to easily see when that calf has backed off milk or feed since it is the only one who has had access to it. In addition, individual pens are great for monitoring a calf's demeanor and symptoms. For example, you can quickly identify changes in stool and react appropriately.
4.) NAVEL INFECTIONS. If left untreated, navel infections can cause a whole new set of challenges for those calves. Individual pens allow us to efficiently check, track, and treat those calves with ease without error. Our system is as simple as marking the calf's pen. Then, we check the calf daily to monitor improvement or decline and provide treatment. As a result, there is no miscommunication between employees, no calves skipped, and time saved not finding each calf in a group pen. We also don't have issues with calves suckling on navels and introducing bacteria into the area, reducing the risk of new navel infections.
5.) TREATMENTS. Sick can be a struggle, but the independent pens make it treating them efficient. The calf is always easy to find and easy to check on. The calf is already isolated and does not require being moved into a sick pen. There is no competition for feed and no pecking order for the calf to be part of. It has been my experience if you are going to have sick calves they will be in the first couple weeks of the calves life with things such as Rota-, Coronavirus, E.coli, Salmonella Dublin, Crypto, or Clostridium. This is when they are going to be most contagious and require the most attention. The individual pens keep the illness isolated to the infected calf and allow for easy record keeping, easy treating, and better monitoring of the calf's condition.
A down side would be that individual pens can be labor-intensive. Each calf has their own water and feed buckets. I have to water each calf multiple times a day to prevent them from running dry. You can have automatic waters in a group pen, so you won't have to water calves individually. Automatic waters are beneficial if you don't have drains in your facility. Calves should be offered clean fresh water regularly, requiring the dumping of old water. If you don't have a place for this water to go, it can be a pain to dump them into a wheel barrel or a bucket rather than on the ground. Keeping the area dry is essential to reduce pathogen load. I feed calf starter daily as well as dump old starter and offer fresh regularly to keep interest up. Although I love that I feed calves individually to track intakes accurately, it still requires time and labor.
In short, individual pens reduce exposure to pathogens for the calf and allow you to observe the calf better, and it's easy to track and treat calves.
If you work closely with your veterinarian to develop a vaccine protocol and get calves vaccinated, you won't spread disease once moved into group pens.
Note: Even if you don't have a vaccine protocol in place and you know you will potentially spread disease when grouping your calves, it's essential to group them at an optimal time, preferably after two weeks of age. It has been my experience if you are going to have sick calves they will be in the first couple weeks of the calves life with things such as Rota-, Coronavirus, E.coli, Salmonella Dublin, Crypto, or Clostridium. This is when they are going to be most contagious and require the most attention.
In my opinion it's not an optimal time to be placed in group pens when you have a 3-5 day old calf with no immune system that may, or may not, have been given quality colostrum, if given any at all. With sale barn calves colostrum status of that calf is unknown. Treating every calf as if they did not get colostrum will reduce overall treatments and deathloss.
It's not an optimal time to be placed in group pens when the calf is coming in with shipping fever from the stress of transport, which has passed through a sale barn that has exposed it to all kinds of pathogens. Respiratory issues, scours, and clostridium can be a challenge for produces regardless of housing. The individual pens make managing and treating calves easy and quick.
Set the calf up for success by minimizing exposure and reducing stress on the calf whenever possible.
I point this out because context is EVERYTHING. How you feed calves will depend on your situation, where you get your calves from, how old the calves are when you get them, the labor you can provide, the setup of your facility, your feeding program, and your end goal. Individual pens are necessary for raising sale barn bull calves with a low morbidity and mortality rate. They are what is optimal for my situation. That doesn't mean they are the best way to raise calves for your situation. If your calves don't face the same challenges mine face, then individual pens may not be necessary for you to raise calves successfully.
For example, a dairy farm has control of that calf from the time it hits the ground. They can be proactive with protocols and ensure it isn't taking in a manure meal, preventing E-coli from entering that calf's gut. Properly cleaning and sanitizing the equipment before using it on calves will keep that calf healthy and free of scours-causing bacteria. The challenges I face with my calves are most likely not the same challenges a dairy faces with theirs. When a calf is raised on the same farm it was born on there are no extra stressors, exposures to pathogens, or unknowns. Vaccinating the cow and good colostrum management will go a long way with success in group pens. CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING. There is no one right way to raise calves. You have to figure out what is right for you. Identify the weaknesses within your setup and your feeding program and modify protocols to work around your weaknesses.