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Taking advantage of natural behaviour of calves to maximise performance

Taking advantage of the natural behaviour of the calf to maximise performance and welfare was on the agenda at the recent Total Dairy seminar in Stratford-upon-Avon. Ann Hardy reports.

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his means always feeding milk through teats, offering high volumes, ideally through ad lib availability and housing in pairs or groups.

 

In response, she will grow faster, socialise better, adapt more easily to a new environment and produce more milk in her first lactation.

 

This message was delivered by Nina von Keyserlingk, Professor of Animal Welfare at the University of British Columbia, who said calves fed two litres from a bucket spent 44 seconds drinking their milk and six minutes sucking whatever they could find.

 

This was about the same time as they would naturally spend suckling their dam, where they would take six to 10 meals a day.

 

She said the sucking reflex was a natural behaviour in all young mammals, including dairy calves, so paired or group-housed calves should be fed high volumes of milk through a teat to prevent cross-sucking.

 

Suggesting a minimum of eight and preferably 10 litres/day, she said the hole in the teat should be small to make the calf work for its feed.

 

“Once calves are being fed lots of milk, they can also be offered small quantities of forage which had been proven to increase the pH and weight of the rumen,” she said.

 

This improved rumen health and development should also help prevent acidosis, said to be one of the biggest challenges around weaning.

Prof von Keyserlingk also suggested that how we house calves could have a significant impact on their behaviour and performance.

 

This was demonstrated in a practical situation when calves given their first access to a grain feeder took vastly different times to find it and start eating.

 

Those previously housed individually took 50 hours to find the feeder while those housed in pairs found it in nine hours.

 

She said calves which had been housed in pairs were calmer and quick to touch each other and explore their environment.

 

“This likely explains why they were so much faster to find the feeder,” she said.

 

Other impacts of the ‘social facilitation’ to come from paired or group housing included higher intakes of creep feed, faster growth rates and less distress at weaning.

 

Anecdotally, she said one farmer told her he found pair-reared calves were calmer and easier to train to milk in robots.

 

However, Prof von Keyserlingk warned that pressure on the farmer to allow the calf to express its most natural behaviour and suckle on its dam was likely to increase.

 

“I would love to say do not worry about it, but you do need to worry about it,” she said. “We need to show we care and that the practice of separating the calf from the cow is not an easy thing to do. In contrast, by saying the public does not understand the dairy business, we risk coming across as simply not caring.”

 

Some of her research has focused on understanding the values of the ‘thoughtful person on the street’.

 

“For many people not working in dairy, the important thing is that the industry continues to try to get better every day, not that it changes overnight,” she said.

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