Field, L. A., Hemsworth, L. M., Jongman, E. et al. 2023. Contact with mature cows and access to pasture during early life shaped dairy heifer behaviour at integration into the milking herd. Animals 13(13), 2049.

This study aimed to determine the effects of early-life physical and social enrichment on the ability of dairy heifers to integrate into a herd of mature cows. Fifty heifer calves were reared from the ages of 2–13 weeks in one of three treatments: (1) Hand-reared and group-housed in sheds (CC); (2) Hand-reared and group-housed at pasture (−S); or (3) Hand-reared and group-housed at pasture, with 3 non-familial dry cows per group (+S). At 23 months of age, these heifers were introduced in groups to small herds of cows (Cows) at pasture. Social interactions were recorded continuously for two 1-h periods. Feeding, ruminating and resting behaviours of all animals and walking, standing and lying behaviours of 36 heifers only (+S = 14, −S = 13, CC = 9) were recorded for 48 h after mixing. Heifers that were managed as calves according to the CC treatment delivered less agonistic behaviour to other heifers after mixing than those reared in the +S or −S treatments (p = 0.002 and p = 0.041, respectively). On Day 2, +S heifers and cows spent the lowest proportion of time feeding (p = 0.961), with −S heifers spending significantly more time feeding than cows (p = 0.046), while CC heifers spent more time feeding than both +S heifers and cows (p = 0.027 and p < 0.002, respectively). Increasing the complexity of the early-life environment, particularly socially, may aid heifers in integrating into groups of multiparous cows later in life and shape their lifelong social experiences with same-age conspecifics.

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