A recent study by researchers in the Animal Welfare Program shows that dairy calves learn better when reared in social environments.
The research, published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE in February, shows dairy calves become better at learning when a “buddy system” is in place. The study provides the first evidence that the standard practice of individually housing calves is associated with certain learning difficulties.
“Pairing calves seems to change the way these animals are able to process information,” said Animal Welfare Professor Dan Weary.
As farms become increasingly complex, with cattle interacting with robotic milkers, automated feeding systems and other technologies, slow adaptation can be frustrating for cows and farmers alike. “Trouble adjusting to changes in routine and environment can cause problems for farmers and animals,” Weary said, adding that the switch from an individual pen to a paired one is often as simple as removing a partition.
Farmers often keep calves in individual pens, believing this helps to reduce the spread of disease. But, as Prof. Weary explains “The risk of one animal getting sick and infecting others is greater when you’re talking about large groups, but is much lower with smaller groups like two or three.” Given these results and other related work, “We recommend that farmers use some form of social housing for their calves during the milk feeding period.”
The study was conducted by at the UBC Dairy Education and Research Centre in Agassiz, B.C. Co-authors include Charlotte Gaillard, Rebecca Meagher, Professor Marina von Keyserlingk, and Professor Dan Weary.