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Is group housing preferable to individual housing of dairy calves?
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.
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