Even people who classify as “social butterflies” may crave time alone now and then, and the same could be true for dairy calves.
“While we know that social contact is important, the social dynamics in group housing can be complicated,” said Emily Miller-Cushon during the July Hoard’s Dairyman webinar.
The assistant professor at the University of Florida explained that the welfare of animals in social groups might depend on their ability to express a range of social behaviors. “We want opportunity for positive social interactions, but maybe animals also need to be able to avoid antagonistic or competitive situations,” she said.
This thought led to a study where a shelter that provided a physical and visual barrier for calves was placed in a group pen. Over the course of three days, the 24 calves in the pen were observed. All of the calves visited the shelter; the minimum usage per calf was 10 minutes per day and went all the way up to 20 hours per day.
Miller-Cushon said the preference for social proximity or isolation might vary between individual animals and may change over time or in certain circumstances. Cows, for example, often seek privacy before calving if it is an option.
The research group also wondered if shelter use would rise if calves were uncomfortable or in pain, such as after disbudding. After comparing two groups of calves — one group that was handled and disbudded and one group that was just handled — they found that the disbudded calves did spend more time in the shelter for the three days following the procedure, and they also visited the shelter more often.
“We think that this suggests that individual calves may have changing preferences for use in the pen space and social interactions, and social preferences might be affected by states like pain,” Miller-Cushon said. Providing more complex environments for calves could accommodate some of these varied behaviors, and she said this may provide some potential indicators of how a calf is feeling.