The short- and long-term effects of social contact in dairy calves

Emily Lindner, a PhD student in the Animal Behavior and Welfare lab at the University of Florida shared her knowledge on the impact of social rearing on dairy calf performance and production during a recent webinar.

dairy calves snuggling in their pen
Calves naturally form social groups with their peers and display positive behaviors from a young age. Photo by Emily Linder, University of Florida.

Cattle are inherently social animals, engaging in behaviors such as grooming, lying together and feeding. Research indicates that calves naturally form social groups with their peers and display positive behaviors from a young age. If we look at the landscape of calf rearing, a significant portion of 0- 60-day dairy calves in the U.S. are housed individually, driven mainly by concerns about disease transmission, behavioral issues, and management efficiency. However, studies show minimal differences in disease prevalence between individually housed calves and those in social housing, with growing evidence supporting the welfare benefits of social housing, especially during the pre- and post-weaning periods.

Consumer perception has played a significant role in shaping industry practices. Recent studies indicate consumers preferring group housing among both young and mature animals. Research from the University of Florida (UF) Animal Behavior and Welfare lab suggests that respondents implementing social housing perceive it more favorable for calf comfort and health compared to those who do not. This underscores the importance of understanding calf behavior when selecting management practices to prioritize their well-being and encourage positive behavioral opportunities from an early age. Overall, producers are increasingly aware of and concerned about calf behavior, seeking to optimize management practices to support calves’ development and welfare.

The existing literature extensively examines the immediate effects of social contact, particularly during the pre-weaning phase, yet there is a notable gap in understanding the long-term implications of early-life interactions on development. A webinar presentation given by Emily Lindner, a PhD student in the Animal Behavior and Welfare lab at UF highlighted four key areas where social housing influences calf welfare: health status, feeding behavior and performance, social development and behavior outcomes, and the extended impact on novelty, fear behaviors and cognition.

Calf Health

Health is a paramount consideration in calf rearing, given its implications for both welfare and economic viability. Research underscores the importance of early life health status as a predictor of long-term productivity, with bovine respiratory disease (BRD) treatment correlating with reduced weight gain and herd retention rates. Comparisons between individual housing, pair housing and small groupings reveal minimal differences in health outcomes. Research has shown though that larger group sizes are associated with increased health risks, including higher incidences of respiratory illness and diarrhea. It's essential to recognize that while social housing may contribute to health risks, numerous management factors also play pivotal roles, such as barn cleanliness, ventilation and cluster management. It comes down to finding the balance that works for your operation and setup.

Feeding behavior and performance

When it comes to understanding cattle behavior, there are a few things that first need to be explained. Cattle experience both social facilitation and social learning. Social facilitation involves initiating a particular response when observing others engaged in that behavior, i.e. a heifer seeing others in the group eating and she goes to join them. Social learning allows individuals to learn from the positive or negative effects of others' actions, i.e. a heifer sees a pen mate get shocked by the electric fence and learns not to touch it.

Feeding behaviors are particularly influenced by social dynamics among herd animals. Interestingly, the level of social contact a calf experiences impacts the uptake of novel feeds, where pair-housed calves take to new feed more quickly. This increased acceptance of solid feed translates to decreased time off feed, promoting growth. This increased acceptance of novel feeds could potentially enhance the success and longevity of heifers once they enter the lactating herd.

Moreover, the milk allowance for calves also influences feed intake. Studies comparing pair housing with individual housing, along with standard versus enhanced milk allowances, reveal that calves provided with social contact and higher milk allowances exhibit greater concentrate intake and body weight gain compared to individually housed calves. This indicates that social contact and increased milk allowance contribute to growth benefits in socially reared calves. It has also been documented that there is a preference for social contact during feeding, regardless of competition for resources. Studies show that calves housed in pairs prefer feeding alongside their pen mates, suggesting that social feeding scenarios influence calf behavior and long-term performance positively.

Social development and behavior outcomes

Social rearing has a profound impact on the social development of dairy calves, heifers and cows, spanning from the pre- to post-weaning periods. Short-term studies have demonstrated the broad benefits of social contact for calves, including reduced fear and increased sociability. Calves exhibit a preference for social bonding, spending more time near familiar companions and displaying motivation to access other calves, especially during feeding. The positive effects of social contact extend beyond the immediate post-weaning period. Calves reared in pairs exhibit stronger social bonds and are better equipped to navigate social regrouping scenarios. Research investigating the effects of early social contact on group adaptation revealed intriguing findings: calves previously housed in pairs display a greater propensity for social lying and exhibit stronger social preferences compared to individually housed calves. Transitioning to pasture settings, observations of socially housed heifers reveal nuanced behavioral differences, such as increased activity levels. A quite interesting finding from this research did draw attention to who heifers decided to socially lie with: former pen mates. A Social Network Analyses was conducted to identify this phenomenon, clearly demonstrating the enduring influence of early social contacts on long-term social interactions.

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Pre-weaning pair assignment predicted proximity-based social network.

Complimentary to this, some studies have explored the enduring behavioral effects of maternal contact on calf development. Calves that were provided with maternal contact exhibit increased affiliative behavior, characterized by more positive interactions such as sniffing and play mounting, commonly observed during integration into the lactating herd and a greater frequency of submissive posturing, potentially facilitating smoother integration into the herd compared to those lacking maternal contact. Researchers also investigated if there were carryover effects of maternal contact from dam to daughter to granddaughter. Cows that received maternal care spent more time licking their offspring (Le Neindre, 1989), showing that social interactions can impact future generations.

Responses to novelty, fear behaviors and cognition in calves

The fourth area that social contact impacts dairy calves is their responses to novelty, fear behaviors and cognition in dairy calves. Existing literature consistently demonstrates that social housing confers numerous advantages in both performance and behavioral development. Calves provided with social contact exhibit reduced avoidance of novel objects during tests, indicating a greater comfort with unfamiliar stimuli. They also display greater behavioral flexibility in tasks like reversal learning, where they must adapt to changes in a familiar environment, such as the location of objects. A study from the UF Animal Behavior and Welfare lab discovered that socially housed calves exhibit greater exploratory behaviors and were less avoidant of a novel object. These findings collectively suggest that providing dairy calves with social contact enhances their ability to cope with stressors and adapt to changing environments and elements within their environment, both in the short- and long-term.

Given the numerous challenges faced by dairy heifers prior to entering the lactating herd—such as changes in housing, management practices, and exposure to veterinary breeding protocols and milking parlors—their ability to adapt behaviorally to novel environments may serve as a significant predictor of overall welfare. Transitions during this period can often be disruptive, resulting in reduced rest and increased agonistic social interactions among heifers. Current research is somewhat limited in understanding how early-life social interactions influence long-term performance and production. There is evidence suggesting benefits for both pre- and post-weaning calves that may persist as the heifer ages. Linder’s research is investigating the long-term effects of early-life social contact and rearing through a longitudinal experiment. In this study, they follow calves from birth through their first lactation, collecting milk data and assessing various parameters related to growth, puberty onset, estrus behavior and maternal behaviors around calving health status.

In this experiment, calves were initially housed in three different treatments—individually, in pairs and in groups—until nine weeks of age. Subsequently, they were mingled between treatments and placed on pasture under standard management practices. At six months of age, weekly observations began to track growth outcomes and puberty onset, including body weight, hip height, estrus behavior and progesterone levels.

Preliminary data analysis revealed that heifers reared in pairs exhibited greater hip height compared to those reared individually, while those reared in groups showed intermediate results. However, there were no significant differences in body weight or age at first estrus behavior observed during this period. Ongoing data collection on older cows suggests that calves raised in pairs were heavier at calving, indicating potential long-term benefits of social housing.

Ultimately, social housing appears to offer numerous benefits to calves in both the short and potentially long term, promoting their overall welfare and success as productive members of the dairy herd.

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