By Robert Tremblay
Cattle are social animals and prefer to be with other cattle.
Even so, for the past several decades, veterinarians and other health professionals have been promoting rearing calves individually rather than in groups because they feel it is easier to grow healthy calves that way. Hutches are often the form of housing that veterinarians recommend. People who look after calves, especially during Canadian winters, aren’t great fans of hutches because of the extra work they require.
Removing calves from their dam and rearing young calves alone are two of the hot button issues that animal welfare advocates complain about on dairy farms. Because of this, there has been quite a bit of research recently on the upsides and downsides, especially of individual versus group housing. Some researchers found that calves are more adaptive to changes in their environment when they are housed with a buddy. That means they find it easier to adjust to new things like changes in feed. Calves housed with a buddy tend to eat more and grow better as they go through weaning.
Behavioural studies also show that calves raised with a buddy adjust better when they are moved into larger groups. This can be particularly obvious in situations where calves are moved into large groups and need to compete for access to feed or a place to lie down. Calves adjust sooner to social environments maybe because they are more accustomed to watching for signs like a ‘pecking order’ — a difficult thing to prove.
So far, researchers seem to have identified some pretty good benefits why calves might do better in groups or at least with a buddy. But what are the potential downsides?
Veterinarians point out that it is easier to find out how much calves eat when you feed them individually, as you do in hutches. Some but not all automated systems can track intakes too.
Veterinarians also assert that calves reared in hutches have a greater chance of being healthier. That is hard to prove one way or another for all farms but on some farms that does seem to be true, especially farms that have scour problems. Of course, solving health problems (or assuring good health) rarely relies on doing just one thing right. You usually need to do lots of things right. But the recent trend towards feeding for more growth really helps keep calves healthier just in itself.
Veterinarians also assert that calves, especially very young calves, will tend to suck each other if they are housed in groups. This cross-sucking can lead to health issues. Calves seem to have a very high drive to suck that can be independent of their need for feed. They may suck even if they are not limit fed. When we limit feed and when we feed from pails rather than bottles, calves will tend to satisfy that drive to suck by sucking parts of themselves or parts of other calves. Cross-sucking can lead to a variety of other problems.
Recent research has shown that there may be differences between different breeds when it comes to cross-sucking. Research showed that Jersey calves cross-suck much more than Holstein calves. Not only that, when Jersey calves cross-suck it can lead to more serious problems than seen in Holsteins. So maybe people raising Jersey calves need to be more attentive to cross-sucking.
One thing that might be important is the opportunity calves have to express their natural sucking behaviour. In the research trial, the Jersey calves were fed from pails: Maybe cross-sucking would not be an issue if the calves had been fed from bottles or if they had been fed more milk.
Dr. Robert Tremblay is a veterinarian for Boehringer-Ingelheim and lives near Guelph.