Mahendran, S. A., Wathes, D. C., Booth, R. E. et al. 2021. The health and behavioural effects of individual versus pair housing of calves at different ages on a UK commercial dairy farm. Animals 11(3), 612.
Housing management of dairy calves is one of the factors that contributes to a successful rearing outcome. Individual housing of pre-weaned calves is thought to provide enhanced biosecurity and easier monitoring of the individual, and so remains prevalent in the UK. Behavioural studies have, however, found that pair housing is important for social learning, with positive impacts on health and welfare. This study utilised a single UK commercial dairy farm to establish if individual housing, pair housing from birth, or pair housing from three weeks of age affected health and behavioural parameters. Calves were housed in these allocated groups from birth to eight weeks of age, when they were moved into group pens of five calves for weaning at 10 weeks of age. All management routines other than the housing group were the same for enrolled calves. One hundred Holstein calves were recruited over a six-month period, and systematically allocated to a housing group. Weekly visits were conducted up to 10 weeks of age (weaning) for each calf, with weight, solid feed intake, and presence of clinical disease measured. In addition, a novel object approach test was carried out at six weeks, and a thoracic ultrasound was performed at seven weeks. Housing group had no effect on the average daily liveweight gain (ADLG) (p = 0.74), with an average of 0.66 kg/day over the pre-weaning period. However, on group housing at 8–10 weeks of age, there was a numerical increase in ADLG in the pair housed calves compared to the individually housed calves over the weaning period. Housing group had no significant effect on disease prevalence (p = 0.98) or the time taken to approach the novel object (p = 0.29). However, pair housed calves had increased mean total solid feed intakes from weeks 2–8 (p = 0.011), with 6.2 ± 0.67 kg (standard error of the mean—SEM), 12.7 ± 0.73 kg and 13.6 ± 0.70 kg ingested by individually housed, pair housed from birth and pair housed from three weeks of age, respectively. The overall findings of this study indicate that within a UK commercial dairy management system, there is no detrimental effect of housing calves within pairs (either from birth or three weeks of age) compared to individual housing.