What effect does early social contact have on dairy calves’ welfare?

New research in the Journal of Dairy Science® examines behavioral, performance, and health effects of early socialization among young calves.

Philadelphia, August 24, 2021 – In addition to needs such as food, water, shelter, and medical care, social contact is an important aspect of welfare for animals, just as it is for humans. Yet early socialization of dairy calves is sometimes given lesser priority in the interest of physical health, with young calves housed individually to prevent the spread of contagious diseases such as those that cause diarrhea, or scours, a major source of calf mortality. In a new study appearing in the Journal of Dairy Science®, scientists from the University of Florida Department of Animal Sciences investigated whether this individually housed tactic is justified and what unintended consequences it may have.

Given different practical considerations, dairy calves’ age of introduction to social housing varies from farm to farm. Different ages of first socialization may affect behavioral development and responses to later social grouping. In this study, Holstein calves were housed either individually or in pairs during their first two weeks of life and then moved, first to groups of four and later to groups of eight, reflecting the dynamic conditions of many farms’ housing systems. Throughout the study, researchers monitored the calves’ ability to learn to feed independently from the teat bucket in early life, and then from the autofeeder. Calf health, feed intake, and weight gain were recorded, as well as activity and social interactions—with surprising results.

“We anticipated that calves reared with social contact in the first weeks would engage more with novel pen resources, have increased social interaction, and have increased lying time upon social grouping, compared with calves previously individually housed,” said lead investigator Emily Miller-Cushon, PhD, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, USA. However, the scientists found little difference in most of the measured outcomes between the differently socialized groups. The most important difference was consistently greater social resting time among initially pair-housed calves, suggesting greater overall comfort with pen-mates, even upon first introduction.

Caption: University of Florida researchers investigated the effects of individual or pair housing on Holstein calves’ health and behavior (Credit: iStock.com/Vital Hil).

Miller-Cushon added that the results showed “minimal other effects on behavior and no detrimental effects on performance.” There was even a tendency for fewer days of diarrhea among calves housed in pairs after birth. Thus, the authors observed, “Although concern for calf health is often cited as reason to house calves individually, at least for a short period after birth, we found a tendency for reduced scours in pair-housed calves, providing evidence that social housing does not negatively affect, and may benefit, early-life calf health.”

Notes for editors
The article is “Effects of early social contact on dairy calf response to initial social grouping and regrouping,” by Emily E. Lindner, Katie N. Gingerich, and Emily K. Miller-Cushon (https://doi.org/10.3168/jds.2021-20435). It appears in the Journal of Dairy Science, volume 104, issue 9 (September 2021), published by FASS Inc. and Elsevier.

Full text of the article is available to credentialed journalists upon request. Contact Eileen Leahy at +1 732 238 3628 or jdsmedia@elsevier.com to obtain copies. Journalists wishing to interview the authors should contact the corresponding author, Emily Miller-Cushon, University of Florida, Gainesville, at emillerc@ufl.edu.

About the Journal of Dairy Science
The Journal of Dairy Science® (JDS), an official journal of the American Dairy Science Association®, is co-published by Elsevier and FASS Inc. for the American Dairy Science Association. It is the leading general dairy research journal in the world. JDS readers represent education, industry, and government agencies in more than 70 countries, with interests in biochemistry, breeding, economics, engineering, environment, food science, genetics, microbiology, nutrition, pathology, physiology, processing, public health, quality assurance, and sanitation. JDS has a 2020 Journal Impact Factor of 4.034 and five-year Journal Impact Factor of 4.354 according to Journal Citation Reports (Source: Clarivate 2021). www.journalofdairyscience.org

About the American Dairy Science Association (ADSA)
The American Dairy Science Association (ADSA) is an international organization of educators, scientists, and industry representatives who are committed to advancing the dairy industry and keenly aware of the vital role the dairy sciences play in fulfilling the economic, nutritive, and health requirements of the world's population. It provides leadership in scientific and technical support to sustain and grow the global dairy industry through generation, dissemination, and exchange of information and services. Together, ADSA members have discovered new methods and technologies that have revolutionized the dairy industry. www.adsa.org

About FASS Inc.
Since 1998, FASS has provided shared management services to not-for-profit scientific organizations. With combined membership rosters of more than 10,000 professionals in animal agriculture and other sciences, FASS offers clients services in accounting, membership management, convention and meeting planning, information technology, and scientific publication support. The FASS publications department provides journal management, peer-review support, copyediting, and composition for this journal; the staff includes five BELS-certified (www.bels.org) technical editors and experienced composition staff. www.fass.org

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