Socialization of Calves

Jennifer A. Spencer, Ph.D. and Juan Piñeiro, DVM, Ph.D. Department of Animal Sciences Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service

An example of calves in a pair housing system.

Management of calves has a substantial influence on calfhood performance. A common practice that has been used for many years is to raise calves in individual hutches from the time of birth until shortly after weaning. These individual hutches provide calves with a clean and dry environment during calfhood. Although in 2008 a survey by the USDA indicated that approximately 77% of dairy producers individually house calves1 , social grouping of calves in groups of two to six has become more prevalent. One advantage of grouping calves is that it allows the use of automatic calf feeders, which reduces labor and tracks individual feeding behavior of calves. This information can be used to detect calf intake and illness. This article will review some the benefits, concerns and future performance associated with the social housing of calves.

Benefits of Group Housing Calves

Research indicates that when calves socialize with other calves some benefits include increased weight gain and improvements in behavior and social skills2 . When calves are socially isolated, they are often reluctant or fearful to try new things. For example, food neophobia is defined as the avoidance or reluctance to taste new food that is unfamiliar3 , and it has been shown that when calves are raised in social groups food neophobia is reduced4 . This reduction in food neophobia may be attributed to calves being intrigued and imitating the feeding behavior of peers and the reduced stress calves have when challenged with change. This is important when the situations around them change such as pen movements, daily activities, or adaptation to different diets. Additionally, the reduced stress observed in group-housed calves may partially explain why several studies have observed increases in dry matter intake, average daily gain and weight at weaning2 . Some of the effects of socially reared calves include:

  • Reducing the stress response when restrained.
  • Increasing playing time.
  • Decreased heart rate when subjected to unfamiliar calves5 .
  • Willingness to approach other calves when mixed after weaning6 .
  • Reduced stress and food neophobia4 .

Concerns and Considerations of Group Housing Calves

Although there are improvements in calf performance when they are raised in groups prior to weaning, there are some concerns such as cross-sucking, competition and aggression, and susceptibility to disease (Table 1).

Cross-sucking: Although cross-sucking is often due to feeding practices, it is something that can be avoided or reduced. Cross-sucking is often associated with the desire to drink milk7 . Therefore, providing high quality milk and starter, adequate feeding space, gradual weaning and using teat feeders rather than buckets can reduce the occurrence of cross-sucking2.

Aggression: Calves may become more aggressive towards one another when grouped due to competition for feed and establishing social hierarchy. Aggression of calves towards one another can result in the injury of calves. To reduce calf aggression, allow adequate feeding space and available feed, and balance groups of calves with similar age, body weight and size.

Disease: One of the main reasonscalves have been individually housed in hutches with enough distance between other calves is to reduce the spread of disease. However, in any calf housing system transmission of diseases can be reduced with good hygiene of the calf and the bedding, proper ventilation, well-balanced diet to meet nutritional requirements, monitoring of health, best colostrum management and feeding practices, and calf processing practices after birth.


Ultimately, the decision of what type of calf housing is going to depend on the operation and dairy producer. There are advantages and disadvantages for grouping calves or housing them individually. However, with proper management practices and protocols either type can provide beneficial results and help to produce calves that will be productive and profitable in the future.


1 USDA. 2008. Dairy 2007, Part III: Reference of Dairy Cattle Health and Management Practices in the United States. USDA, National Animal Health Monitoring System, Fort Collins, CO.

2 Costa, J. H. C., M. A. G. von Keyserlink, and D. M. Weary. 2016. Invited review: Effects of group housing of dairy calves on behavior, cognition, performance, and health. J. Dairy Sci. 99:2453-2467.

3 Cooke, L., S. Carnell, and J. Wardle. 2006. Food neophobia and mealtime food consumption in 4–5 year old children. Int. J. Behav. Nutr. Phys. Act. 3:14.

4 Costa, J. H. C., R. R. Daros, M. A. G. von Keyserlingk, and D. M. Weary. 2014. Complex social housing reduces food neophobia in dairy calves. J. Dairy Sci. 97:7804– 7810

5 Jensen, M. B., K. S. Vestergaard, C. C. Krohn, and L. Munksgaard. 1997. Effect of single versus group housing and space allowance on responses of calves during openfield tests. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 54:109–121.

6 de Paula Vieira, A., A. M. de Passile, and D. M. Weary. 2012. Effects of the early social environment on the behavioural responses of dairy calves to novel events. J. Dairy Sci. 95:5149–5155.

7 de Passille, A. M. 2001. Sucking motivation and related problems in calves. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 72:175–187.

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