Cows learn better with a buddy

Calves housed individually took longer to adapt to new things

Cows learn better when housed together, which may help them adjust faster to complex new feeding and milking technologies on the modern farm, a University of British Columbia study has found.

The research, published in PLOS ONE, shows dairy calves become better at learning when a “buddy system” is in place. The study also provides the first evidence that the standard practice of individually housing calves is associated with certain learning difficulties.

“Pairing calves seems to change the way these animals are able to process information,” said Dan Weary, corresponding author and a professor in UBC’s Animal Welfare Program. “We recommend that farmers use some form of social housing for their calves during the milk-feeding period.”

As farms become increasingly complex, with cattle interacting with robotic milkers, automated feeding systems and other technologies, slow adaptation can be frustrating for cows and farmers alike.

“Trouble adjusting to changes in routine and environment can cause problems for farmers and animals,” Weary says, adding that the switch from an individual pen to a paired one is often as simple as removing a partition.

Farmers often keep calves in individual pens, believing this helps to reduce the spread of disease. But Weary says that the concern is unwarranted if cows are housed in small groups.

The study, conducted at UBC’s Dairy Education and Research Centre in Agassiz, B.C., involved two cognitive tests for two groups of Holstein calves housed in individual pens or in pairs.

In one test, the calves were taught to complete a simple task, approaching a black bottle full of milk and avoiding an empty white bottle. Then researchers switched the rules.

“At first, both the individually housed and pair-housed calves initially struggled with the task, but after a few training sessions the pair-housed calves began approaching the correct bottle while the individually housed calves persisted with the old strategy, visiting the incorrect bottle more often,” said Rebecca Meagher, co-author.

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