The effect of individual versus pair housing of dairy heifer calves during the preweaning period on measures of health, performance, and behavior up to 16 weeks of age

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Pair housing of dairy heifer calves during the preweaning period helps meet the natural social needs of the calf and has been shown to improve growth and starter intake during the preweaning period as compared with individual housing. However, there is little evidence to suggest that pair-housed calves maintain their social and growth advantages past the weaning phase. The objective of this study was to investigate the effect of pair housing on measures of calf performance, health, and behavior up to 16 wk of age. Healthy Holstein and crossbred heifer calves were enrolled in the study after colostrum feeding, with the first calf randomly assigned to 1 of 2 housing treatments: pair (PR; 2 hutches with common outdoor space) or individual (INDV; 1 hutch plus outdoor space). All calves were bucket fed 4 L of milk replacer twice daily and weaned at 50 d of age. Weaned calves (6/group) remained with their treatment group until exit from the study at 16 wk. A venous blood sample was collected from each calf between 24 h and 7 d of age to test for serum total protein (g/dL). Body weights (kg) were obtained at birth, weaning, and 16 wk. Each enrolled calf was scored for health each week and calf health treatments were also collected. A hair sample was collected from the left shoulder at birth and 16 wk to assess hair cortisol (pg/mL). At enrollment, each calf was fitted with a triaxial accelerometer on the left hind leg for continuous recording of standing and lying time (min/24 h) for 16 wk. Latency to find feed, water, and lie down (min) at entrance to the weaned pen were recorded by continuous video observation. Open field testing with a novel object was performed at 5, 10, and 16 wk. Behaviors analyzed by video observation included latency to approach the object (s), vocalizations (n), and time spent immobile, walking, or running (s/10 min). Linear mixed models were used to determine the effect of treatment (INDV or PR) on calf growth, activity, and behavioral outcomes, which accounted for time, breed, the interaction of time and treatment, the random pen, and variability in testing day and repeated measurements within calf when appropriate. Twenty-four Holstein and crossbred calves (PR: n = 12, 6 pairs; INDV: n = 12) were enrolled from November 2 to December 23, 2018. The PR calves were 7.1 kg heavier at weaning and gained 0.15 kg/d more during the preweaning period as compared with INDV calves. In the 24 h after movement to the postweaning pen, PR calves lay down for longer periods of time (14.3 vs. 11.0 ± 0.4 h/d), and PR calves urinated more during novel object testing at 5 wk of age. Our study demonstrated benefits, such as better growth and increased lying time, of pair housing calves during the preweaning period.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3495-3507
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Dairy Science
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 1 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors thank the staff at the University of Minnesota Saint Paul campus Dairy Cattle Teaching and Research Center, especially Saige Sulzberger, Jon-Paul Salvador, and Danielle Johnson, for their help adhering to treatments. We also acknowledge Amber Brink (Department of Animal Science, University of Minnesota, St. Paul), who performed the cortisol assay, and Karly Anderson (Department of Animal Science, University of Wisconsin, River Falls) for her assistance in data collection. The authors have not stated any conflicts of interest.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 American Dairy Science Association


  • calf behavior
  • pair housing
  • social housing


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