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Bovines with buddies learn better, says new UBC research on Holsteins

University of British Columbia postdoctoral fellow Rebecca Meagher, shwn here in this undated handout photo, has discovered that cows get smarter when housed together. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-University of British Columbia Public Affairs

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University of British Columbia postdoctoral fellow Rebecca Meagher, shwn here in this undated handout photo, has discovered that cows get smarter when housed together. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-University of British Columbia Public Affairs

VANCOUVER - If you're cattle are easily rattled or your heifers seems a little half-witted, maybe they just need a bovine buddy.

New research out of the University of British Columbia suggests dairy calves learn better when they're in pairs, which might help them get the hang of that new robotic milker or feeder.

University of British Columbia professor Dan Weary says the life of the average Holstein cow is actually quite complex, and the longtime practice of keeping dairy calves in separate pens during the first six to eight weeks of their lives may actually be harming instead of helping the animals.

"This really common form of housing is resulting in these animals that seem to have this cognitive deficit," Weary, who works in the university's animal welfare program, said in an interview.

"They don't learn; they aren't able to learn the same way that a normal animal learns."

Weary and his colleagues conducted tests at the university's research centre in Agassiz, B.C., east of Vancouver, and their findings were published Wednesday in the online journal PLOS One.

The first of two tests found calves that lived with another calf became familiar with and learned to ignore a red-plastic bin placed in their pen, while individual calves on their own continued to react to each exposure of the red-plastic bin as if it was their first time seeing it.

In a second test, calves were given the choice between two bottles: a black bottle full of milk and a white bottle that was empty. Once the cavles learned to choose the black bottle, the rules were changed, and the paired calves adjusted to the new rules more quickly.

Weary said dairy calves grow up to live in complex environments and have to learn to use robotic milkers and automatic feeders. He said they are moved from group to group and must learn to live with others and in different environments.

"It can be difficult and frustrating for the animals when they get switched into an environment and they are unable to learn the rules," said Weary. "And it's also frustrating and difficult for the farmers that are working with these animals."

Weary said pairing calves seems to change the way they process information, and he recommends farmers use some form of "social housing" during milk-feeding time.

"I think a finding like this might end up actually being quite important in terms of improving the lives of the animals and also the farmers that take care of those animals," he said.

However, the researchers' work isn't finished.

Weary said he and his fellow researchers are following up on the study and are placing calves in much more complex environments to determine how the animals learn and solve problems.

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