Synopsis: Effect of social housing on feeding behavior

Which is best for neonatal calf growth and health: individual or paired housing? Much of the recent research on calf housing has answered this question by showing that pair housing of neonatal calves improves both growth and welfare by encouraging greater feed intake, by supporting and encouraging the development of normal social behaviours, and by reducing stress and helping with weight gain at weaning. Until recently, most of this research had focused on tracking solid feed intake. However, in 2015, Jensen, et al. found that calves paired socially and on enhanced milk-feeding programmes had greater responses to social stimuli than those with low allowances of milk, and thus increased their starter intakes even more. But what of the impact of social housing in calves with free access to both solid feed and milk? A 2015 joint study from the University of Florida and the University of Guelph, sought to find out.

The 13-week study showed that the pair housed calves had significantly higher solid feed intakes during the milk feeding stage than individually housed calves, with the gap increasing over time. During the weaning phase, pair housed calves continued to consume more than double the dry matter of the individually housed calves per day and had significantly higher ADG than the individually housed calves (0.67 kg per day vs. 0.41 kg per day). While DMI and ADG did not differ between these two treatments after weaning, feeding behaviour did. While all calves were pair housed after weaning, the calves who were so from birth continued to have more frequent meals and with shorter duration.

It does indeed seem that early social environments help shape meal patterns and that these patterns can and do persist after weaning. This study also suggests that calves reared with social contact prior to weaning continue to prefer to feed socially after weaning. These findings do indeed have significant implications for herd management, especially since most dairy cows feed in groups, post weaning.

Learn more

To learn more about this research and its implications for calf nutrition and herd management, have a look at our full Technical Note or take a look at the original research: E.K. Miller-Cushon and T.J. DeVries "Effect of social housing on the development of feeding behavior and social feeding preferences of dairy calves." Journal of Dairy Science. 99: 1-12. (2016).