If young dairy calves live together, they develop better social skills and may eventually produce more milk as an adult cow, according to University of Florida assistant professor Emily Miller-Cushon.
Just like people, dairy cows need to adapt to changing environments as they develop, which includes moving among social groups, changing housing arrangements and entering the milking parlor, said Miller-Cushon, an assistant professor of animal sciences at the University of Florida Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences (IFAS).
A cow’s ability to cope with these events depends on her ability to learn and interact socially with other cows, Miller-Cushon said. The more adaptable they are, the less they will be stressed and fearful in new situations and the more milk they should produce, Miller-Cushon said. This means that their welfare — which broadly refers to the animal’s health and performance, emotional state and opportunity for normal behaviors like socialization — will improve.
“The most common way to raise dairy calves from birth is in individual pens, but providing early social contact may improve the long-term welfare of these animals. This should benefit sustainability of the dairy industry as a whole, improving consumer perceptions and having economic benefits for producers,” she explained.
Miller-Cushon will utilize a new, $490,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food & Agriculture to fund research into early dairy cattle development. She plans to start her research later this year at the university’s dairy unit in Hague, which is north of Gainesville, Fla. Similar types of data also will come from scientists at the University of Tennessee.
Dairy farmers commonly house calves individually because it simplifies management and may protect calves from disease, Miller-Cushon said. Yet, evidence suggests that social contact during this period may benefit calf behavior development without greatly increasing disease risk. Furthermore, no work has determined the broad effects that calves’ early social contact may have on animal welfare over a longer time, she said.
Previous research in young calves and across other species suggests that early social contact has critical effects on learning and development of social behavior, Miller-Cushon noted.
“Cattle are social species, so early social interaction may be important for lifelong normal social behaviors,” she said.
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