Invited review: Effects of group housing of dairy calves on behavior, cognition, performance, and health

J. H.C. Costa, M. A.G. von Keyserlingk, D. M. Weary

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

146 Scopus citations


Standard practice in the dairy industry is to separate the calf and dam immediately after birth and raise calves in individual pens during the milk-feeding period. In nature and in extensive beef systems, the young calf lives in a complex social environment. Social isolation during infancy has been associated with negative effects, including abnormal behavior and developmental problems, in a range of species. Here, we review empirical work on the social development of calves and the effects of social isolation in calves and other species; this evidence indicates that calves reared in isolation have deficient social skills, difficulties in coping with novel situations, as well as specific cognitive deficits. We also review the practices associated with group housing of dairy calves, and discuss problems and suggested solutions, especially related to cross-sucking, competition, aggression, and disease. The studies reviewed indicate that social housing improves solid feed intakes and calf weight gains before and after calves are weaned from milk to solid feed. Evidence regarding the effects of social housing on calf health is mixed, with some studies showing increased risk of disease and other studies showing no difference or even improved health outcomes for grouped calves. We conclude that there is strong and consistent evidence of behavioral and developmental harm associated with individual housing in dairy calves, that social housing improves intakes and weight gains, and that health risks associated with grouping can be mitigated with appropriate management.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2453-2467
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Dairy Science
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 1 2016

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank the two anonymous reviewers, Heather W. Neave (UBC Animal Welfare Program), Jennifer L. Black (UBC Food Nutrition and Health Program), Andréia de Paula Vieira (Federal University of the Parana, Curitiba Brazil), and Maria José Hötzel (Federal University of Santa Catarina, Florionopolis, Brazil) for their input and comments on previous drafts of this manuscript. Joao H. C. Costa received a scholarship from CNPq (The Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development). Much of our research on this topic was funded by a Discovery Grant to D. M. Weary from Canada’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC; Ottawa, ON, Canada) . Our research group is funded by NSERC’s Industrial Research Chair program , with industry contributions from the Dairy Farmers of Canada (Ottawa, ON, Canada), British Columbia Dairy Association (Burnaby, BC Canada), Westgen Endowment Fund (Milner, BC, Canada), Intervet Canada Corporation (Kirkland, QC, Canada), Novus International Inc. (Oakville, ON, Canada), Zoetis (Kirkland, QC, Canada), BC Cattle Industry Development Fund (Kamloops, BC, Canada), Alberta Milk (Edmonton, AB, Canada), Valacta (St. Anne-de-Bellevue, QC, Canada), and CanWest DHI (Guelph, ON, Canada).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016 American Dairy Science Association.


  • Individual housing
  • Neonate development
  • Replacement heifers
  • Social isolation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Food Science
  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Genetics


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