Effect of group size on behavior, health, production, and welfare of veal calves

J Anim Sci. 2013 Nov;91(11):5455-65. doi: 10.2527/jas.2013-6308. Epub 2013 Aug 29.


The objective of this study was to investigate the effect of group size on behavior, growth, health, and welfare of veal calves. Holstein-Friesian bull calves (n=168; 44±3 d of age) were assigned randomly to 1 of 3 treatments of group housing with 2, 4, or 8 calves per pen. The pens used for housing were 3 by 1.20 m (2 calves per pen), 3 by 2.40 m (4 calves per pen), and 3 by 4.80 m (8 calves per pen), supplying a total pen space allowance of 1.82 m2/calf, regardless of pen size. Behavior was recorded from video data throughout the day from 0700 to 1900 h during a single day each month for 5 mo using scan sampling every 5 min within 30-min observation sessions. On d 0, 1, 5, 14, 42, and 70 after grouping, continuous focal sampling around feeding time (30-min intervals before, during, and after feeding) focused on oral and aggressive behaviors. Calves housed in large groups (4 or 8 calves per pen) showed more (P≤0.001) conspecific contact, walking, and standing and less (P<0.001) manipulation of objects, self-licking, and lying when compared to calves housed in small groups (2 calves per pen). Group size had no effect on play behavior (P=0.11) throughout the experiment. During feeding times group size had no (P≥0.07) effect on any behavioral patterns except for duration of conspecific contact (P<0.01). Aggression at feeding time was not (P>0.23) affected by treatment. Group size treatments were similar for hip height change (P=0.41) and heart girth change (P=0.18) over the duration of the experiment; however, both hip height and heart girth increased (P=0.001) with calf age. During mo 1, calves in groups of 8 or 4 coughed more than calves in groups of 2 whereas calves in groups of 8 coughed more than calves in groups of 4 or 2 in mo 2 (treatment×month, P=0.03). Furthermore, during mo 4, calves in groups of 8 had less nasal discharge than calves in groups of 2 or 4 (treatment×month, P=0.02). Ocular discharge, ears, and fecal scores did not differ (P≥0.05) among treatments. Plasma cortisol was not (P≥0.37) affected by group size. The number of veal calves in a group when given the same space did not affect production and physiological indicators of welfare but had a transient effect on health during the 5-mo finishing period. If increased play and social contact and decreased aggression are considered as primary indicators of welfare, group size did not alter calf welfare.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Animal Husbandry / methods*
  • Animal Welfare*
  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Cattle
  • Hydrocortisone / blood
  • Male
  • Social Behavior
  • Stress, Physiological / physiology
  • Weight Gain


  • Hydrocortisone