calf housing: Individually or in pairs?
Housing calves individually is in many countries the standard. The main reasons for doing so have to do with the ease of working and the fear of contamination when housing calves in groups.
Previous research has shown that when calves can make contact with one another and can be housed in groups, it positively affects the feed intake, weight gain, social development and stress management of the calves.1
A good mid-way solution between housing calves individually or in groups could be housing calves in pairs. This calf housing system combines the benefits of social contact with the practical benefits of a smaller calf housing system. With this system, calves make les physical contact with each other, which could cause contaminations, compared to group housing2. The benefit of this system is that calves can experience the advantages of a group housing without the necessity to be held in bigger groups. Previous research has already shown the following benefits of housing calves in pairs in comparison to housing calves individually:
– Calves are less fearful when meeting new calves for the first time3 and when introduced new feed4.
– Calves housed in pairs perform better in cognitive tests in comparison to calves being housed individually5.
– Calves are in a more positive affective state6 and handle stress better after weaning7.
This raises the question: Why aren’t all calves housed in pairs?
A study by Katarína Bučková, Radka Šárová, Ágnes Moravcsíková en Marek Špinka, was published several weeks ago in the Journal of Dairy Science. This study focussed on the differences in feed intake, health, growth and behaviour of calves housed individually and calves housed in pairs.
For this research 22 calves were housed individually and 44 calves were housed in pairs. All calves (Holstein) were separated from their mother within 12 hours after birth. The calves were held individually until the introduction of the experiment. This varied from 2 to max 15 days after birth. The individual calf hutches in the experiment were 1,4 m x 2,6 m. The calf hutches for pairs were 2,8 x 2,6 m. All calf hutches had a straw bedding.
– The health of the calves was measured in terms of diarrhea and respiratory problems. This was measured up to day 49.
– The feed intake was measured based on the intake of calf starter and milk.
– Growth was measured in terms of daily weight gain.
– After 11 up to 18 days, the behaviour of the calves was measured by using an ethogram, consisting of 8 behavioural categories.
The most important results of the study on feed intake, health, growth and behaviour are described below.
For a more elaborate description of the results we recommend you to read the study here
No significant difference in health was found between calves being housed individually and calves housed in pairs. In other words, no significant difference in terms of respiratory problems and diarrhea was found between the 2 calf housing systems.
These results were consistent with 4 previous studies, which had not found a difference in health either.
Consistent with several studies, but also in contrast with multiple other studies, no significant difference in terms of feed intake was found between calves being housed individually and calves housed in pairs. There are studies that do show a higher intake of calf starter for calves being housed in pairs. This study did not find such an effect.
Furthermore, no difference in milk intake was found between the 2 calf housing systems, which is consistent with previous studies.
This study also didn’t find a difference in terms of growth between the 2 housing systems. This result was in line with 6 earlier studies, but in contrast with 3 other studies which did find a stronger growth when calves were kept in pairs.
The goal of measuring the behaviour of the calves was to see whether the calves suffer from insufficient space. To measure behaviour, the calves were put in a spacious arena. This arena did not have any straw and in this contained a stairway to an even bigger arena. Follow the link to see it in practice:
The calves who were housed individually were more active and moved more inside the arena. This was consistent with previous studies. Furthermore, it was found that individually housed calves showed poverty of movement in the 2nd week after birth.
Besides social behaviour, fear-related behaviour was measured as well. However, no difference in fear-related behaviours were found between calves in the 2 calf housing systems. In previous studies it was already found that individually housed calves are generally in a more negative affective state in comparison to pair-housed calves.
So…..should calves be housed individually or in pairs? This question is not so easy to answer. The study discussed in this article did not find many differences in health, feed intake, growth and behaviour.
However, previous studies did find evidence that pair-housed calves outperform individually housed calves on various parameters. That is why the writers of this research are also in favour of the growing consensus for housing calves in pairs. This is supported by the fact that in practically all studies on this subject, pair-housed calves never performed worse than individually housed calves.
In addition, it is good to take into account the latest developments on calf housing policies. The EU aims to start phasing out cage systems in cattle farming from 2023. In the case of calf housing, this seems be primarily a matter of ‘Calf Pens’. In addition, these regulations also seem to be aimed more at countries where regulations and compliance are lagging behind. The proposals are not yet concrete and there is still much vagueness and uncertainty surrounding this topic. However, housing in pairs does seem to fit better in the EU’s vision of the future.
At Topcalf we believe that both calf housing systems can be used for successful calf rearing. Years ago, we introduced our Topcalf Duo-flex calf hutch. This calf hutch is equipped with a removable separation wall, which makes it possible to keep the calves individually or as a pair. This allows the farmer to keep the calves for example one week individually and then remove the separation wall to enjoy the benefits of both individual calf housing and group housing. Besides our Duo-flex calf hutch, the Topcalf calf pens, Trio, Quattro and Quinto are all standardly equipped with these removable separation walls.
Costa et al., 2016
J.H.C. Costa, M.A.G. von Keyserlingk, D.M. Weary
Invited review: Effects of group housing of dairy calves on behavior, cognition, performance, and health
J. Dairy Sci., 99 (2016), pp. 2453-2467
Mikuš et al., 2020
T. Mikuš, R. Marzel, O. Mikuš
Early weaning: New insights on an ever-persistent problem in the dairy industry
J. Dairy Res., 87 (S1) (2020), pp. 88-92
De Paula Vieira et al., 2012
A. De Paula Vieira, A.M. de Passillé, D.M. Weary
Effects of the early social environment on behavioral responses of dairy calves to novel events
J. Dairy Sci., 95 (2012), pp. 5149-5155
Jensen and Larsen, 2014
M.B. Jensen, L.E. Larsen
Effects of level of social contact on dairy calf behavior and health
J. Dairy Sci., 97 (2014), pp. 5035-5044
Whalin et al., 2018
L. Whalin, D.M. Weary, M.A.G. von Keyserlingk
Short communication: Pair housing dairy calves in modified calf hutches
J. Dairy Sci., 101 (2018), pp. 5428-5433
Gaillard et al., 2014
C. Gaillard, R.K. Meagher, M.A.G. von Keyserlingk, D.M. Weary
Social housing improves dairy calves’ performance in two cognitive tests
PLoS One, 9 (2014), Article e90205
Bučková et al., 2019
K. Bučková, M. Špinka, S. Hintze
Pair housing makes calves more optimistic
Sci. Rep., 9 (2019), Article 20246