Are your calves having fun?

When we house calves in environments with easy access to everything they need, such as a clean bed, fresh water, milk/milk replacer, and calf starter, calves end up with free time! Should we provide them with something to do?

Play behaviour such as galloping, bucking, and kicking is considered an indicator of good welfare. Calves typically only play when all of their needs are met – they are full, comfortable, and healthy. Calves will play less when hungry, sick, or in pain. Due to this, playful calves are a sign that management is meeting their needs. Enhancements often encourage play in healthy calves.

Cattle and calves can have good welfare without enhancements. However, for producers looking to improve welfare even more, there are some easy ways to go above and beyond.Environmental enrichment/housing enhancement – changing management or housing to improve welfare – is common in zoos, laboratory animals, and some livestock sectors. For example, the National Farm Animal Care Council’s Codes of Practice require mink, pigs, and laying hens to be given enhancements. There are several forms of enhancement that can improve welfare and productivity in cattle.

Group or pair housing

Group or pair housing is becoming more common for pre-weaned calves. Calves in well managed pairs or groups of less than ten are just as healthy as calves housed individually, and grouping calves can sometimes be as easy as removing a barrier between pens or pushing hutches together.


  • Calves are less stressed by changes in routine (such as weaning)
  • Calves are better at learning to use automatic feeders
  • Calves eat solid food sooner and in larger amounts
  • Calves are easier to handle
  • Builds social skills for calves (leads to more stable groups of older animals)
  • Provides more space, which increases play and exercise

Want to learn more about successfully housing calves in pairs or groups? Don’t miss the 2018 Healthy Calf Conference. Dr. Trevor DeVries will be discussing the pros and cons of group housing as well as offering advice on managing groups successfully. Follow us on Facebook for updates


Interactions with people can improve average daily gain in calves and reduce calves’ fear of humans, especially during handling. However, interactions can also be negative and reduce welfare if they consist of rough handling, loud noises, or abrupt movements. Further, calves that are only handled for stressful events (such as vaccines) will be more fearful of humans than those that have positive interactions with people, such as feeding, petting, or scratching.


  • Calves are easier to handle
  • Calves are less stressed by handling
  • Easy to handle calves make happier stock people


Changing the environment of calves by adding objects can encourage play and exercise. While automatic brushes can be a large investment, hanging stationary brushes, ropes, or balls is cost-effective.

  • Brushes
    • Cattle will spend time grooming themselves or pen mates, but also rub against pen fixtures such as gates and troughs, which may injure cattle or damage housing. Providing brushes can direct rubbing to safe surfaces. Automated brushes are preferred to stationary brushes. Brushes are used daily when provided.
    • Studies have found that sick, heat stressed, or cattle that just underwent a veterinary procedure are less likely to use the brush. By keeping an eye on who is using the brush or assessing coat cleanliness, producers may be able to determine if animals are sick or stressed.
    • Improve cleanliness (health and food safety issue)
  • Rope or ball
    • Calves will interact with rope or a ball hanging in a pen.(1)
    • Playing with a rope or ball is not a natural behaviour for calves. Therefore, more curious and bolder calves may interact with these but more reserved calves may ignore these enhancements.
  • Fresh bedding
    • Encourages play

Milk from a nipple

A previous Calf Care Corner article has discussed why drinking from a nipple on a bucket or bottle, a floating nipple, or an automatic feeder can be beneficial. (See “Do calves need to drink from a nipple?)


  • Reduces cross sucking (sucking on other calves) and sucking on objects in pen
  • Releases digestive hormones, improving nutrient absorption and making calves feel full
  • Improves feed efficiency
  • Reduces bloat


Cattle have excellent hearing. High-pitched and loud noises common to a farm environment can be stressful. Adding additional noise, in the form of music, to a loud environment to drown out the noise of milking equipment, loud stock people, or clanging gates may not be ideal. A focus on minimizing, as much as is practical, noise may be more ideal. However, sometimes music improves the mood of staff, which can have a positive effect on cattle.


As ruminants, cattle are specially adapted to digesting fibrous forage such as hay or straw.


  • Aids normal rumen development
  • Encourages rumination
  • Reduces the occurrence of abnormal behaviours (tongue rolling, licking or biting objects in the pen, or chewing without food in the mouth)
  • Reduce the risk of ruminal acidosis
  • Reduce the risk of bloat

Making simple changes to calf housing can improve welfare, health, and productivity on your farm. While changes like group or pair housing, feeding fibre, or feeding milk through a nipple are becoming standard industry practices, adding brushes or balls to calf housing is a great way to introduce calves to housing enhancements.

Always ensure any housing enhancements are designed for livestock and safe to use. Supervise calves when introducing enhancements.