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Is group housing preferable to individual housing of dairy calves?

Article ID: 701
Last updated: 25 May, 2017
Revision: 1
Views: 513

Calves born in a natural environment will begin interacting with each other at around 1-2 weeks of age when the dam (mother) will leave their calf with a group of other calves and graze nearby. Before then, the calf is either alone or with its dam.

It is common in the dairy industry to house new-born calves individually in their first days or weeks of life. This reduces the risk of disease transmission, because generally there is no nose-to-nose contact between calves, it enables close management of colostrum feeding, and facilitates the initial care of the calf.

However, calves are a gregarious animal which means they are highly social and motivated to interact with each other and mimic each other’s behaviours. From an animal welfare perspective, group housing is desirable because it improves cognitive performance (allowing them to better respond to changes in their environment), provides animals with more space to move around, and gives calves the opportunity to express social behaviours, including play behaviours such as running, jumping, and bucking.

Individual housing allows customised feeding and care of the calf and requires more space and more infrastructure than group housing. However, stronger bonds are formed between calves paired at birth rather than later in life and these social bonds influence calf fearfulness. Tactile contact is important for calf welfare in that it enables the expression of sniffing and licking behaviours and is further improved in pair or group housing where calves can have full body contact with each other. In individually housed calves, the level of licking fixtures and own body is higher than in pair-housed calves. This suggests that this licking may be redirected social grooming or redirected exploratory behaviour.

The greater space allowance in group housing allows calves to lie with their legs outstretched and their head on the ground, postures which are important for ensuring proper rest and sleep. In colder climates, group housing or pair housing of calves helps calves to keep warm as they can lie next to each other. Calves housed in pairs are less reactive to novel situations (environmental or social). Although group housing may increase competition for feed and other resources, it is thought that competition and socially transmitted behaviours (e.g. feeding and degree of competition at feeding) improve rumen development and increase starter feed intake. Calves housed in pairs prior to weaning consume more starter feed, gain more weight and vocalise less than individually housed calves.

Bibliography

  • Adams-Progar A, Pereira R, Moore DA (2015) Group housing preweaned dairy calves: Socialization versus disease transmission. ag animal health spotlight: Veterinary Medicine Extension, October 2015. Washington State University.
  • Buchli C, Raselli A, Bruckmaier R et al (2017) Contact with cows during the young age increases social competence and lowers the cardiac stress reaction in dairy calves. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 187:1-7.
  • Chua B, Coenen E, van Delen J et al (2002) Effects of pair versus individual housing on the behavior and performance of dairy calves. Journal of Dairy Science 85:360-364.
  • Cobb CJ, Obeidat BS, Sellers MD et al (2014) Improved performance and heightened neutrophil responses during the neonatal and weaning periods among outdoor group-housed Holstein calves. Journal of Dairy Science 97:930-939.
  • Costa JHC, Daros RR, von Keyserlingk MAG et al (2014) Complex social housing reduces food neophobia in dairy calves. Journal of Dairy Science 97:7804-7810.
  • Dairy Australia (2011) Rearing Healthy Calves manual. www.dairyaustralia.com.au.
  • de Paula Vieira A, de Passillé AM, Weary DM (2012) Effects of the early social environment on behavioral responses of dairy calves to novel events. Journal of Dairy Science 95:5149-5155.
  • Hulbert LE, Moisá SJ (2016) Stress, immunity, and the management of calves. Journal of Dairy Science 99:3199-3216.
  • Jensen MB & Weary D (2013) Group housing and milk feeding of dairy calves. WCDS Advances in Dairy Technology 25:179 -189.
  • Jensen MB & Larsen LE (2014) Effects of level of social contact on dairy calf behavior and health. Journal of Dairy Science 97(8):5035-5044. doi: 10.3168/jds.2013-7311.
  • Jensen MB, Duve LR & Weary DM (2015) Pair housing and enhanced milk allowance increase play behavior and improve performance in dairy calves. Journal of Dairy Science 98(4):2568-2575.
  • Klein-Jobstl D, Iwersen M & Drilich M (2014) Farm characteristics and calf management practices on dairy farms with and without diarrhea: A case-control study to investigate risk factors for calf diarrhea. Journal of Dairy Science 97:5110-5119.
  • Maunsell F, Donovan GA (2008) Biosecurity and risk management for dairy replacements. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Food Animal Practice 24:155-190.
  • Miller-Cushon EK, DeVries TJ (2015) Invited review: Development and expression of dairy calf feeding behaviour. Canadian Journal of Animal Science 95:341-350.
  • Miller-Cushon EK, Bergeron R, Leslie KE et al (2014) Competition during the milk-feeding stage influences the development of feeding behavior of pair-housed dairy calves. Journal of Dairy Science 97:6450-6462.
  • National Farm Animal Care Council (2016) Code of practice for the care & handling of veal cattle: Review of scientific research on priority issues. NFACC, December 2016.
  • Roland L, Drillich M, Klein-Jöbstl D et al (2016) Invited review: Influence of climatic conditions on the development, performance, and health of calves. Journal of Dairy Science 99:2438-2452.

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Also read
document What happens to bobby calves?
document What do we mean by humane killing or slaughter?
document What is veal?
document Does the RSPCA have animal welfare standards for dairy production?
document How are animals killed for food?
document Does the RSPCA have animal welfare standards for dairy veal?
document Why are calves separated from their mother in the dairy industry?
document How much milk should dairy calves be fed?
document Why is colostrum feeding important for calves?

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