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Rethinking dairy calf management


HOUSING dairy calves in pairs and providing an increased supply of milk via a nipple feeder could be the key to optimising growth and performance in later life. Alex Robinson reports.

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EFFICIENT calf management can be a challenge for dairy farmers. Housing and feeding regimes are often designed to mitigate disease risk and as milk-fed calves are believed to have a high risk of catching infection, most producers aim to get stock onto starter feed as early as possible.


At a recent AHDB discussion, Prof Nina von Keyserlingk, a scientist and industrial research chair at the University of British Columbia, said responding to a calf’s natural instinct is vital to ensure increased growth and reduced stress.


Prof Keyserlingk said: “When a calf is born, its natural reaction is to suckle from its mother’s teat. At some point in time, it was decided dairy calves should be fed from buckets, which is far from what nature intended. A recent study has shown the average calf spends about 44 seconds drinking milk from a bucket and the remaining time is spent sucking on other objects in the environment, whether this be a bucket or another calf. Our answer to this problem was to individually house dairy calves.


“Providing a nipple feeder means the calf can mimic its natural behaviour, and therefore it sucks for a much longer period of time. Calves which suckle from a teat are also reported to have higher levels of insulin, which improves digestion.”


Due to disease fears, many farmers feed low amounts of milk, about 10 per cent of body weight, in order to increase starter feed intake earlier on. However, until about four weeks of life, calves cannot effectively digest hard feed.


Feeding increased volumes of milk in this four-week window can provide calves with the necessary nutrition for weight gain and immunity strength. Reducing the milk intake to 10 per cent at 28 days means calves have received substantial amounts of nutrients and are ready to consume the starter feed. Offering an increased supply of milk via a nipple feeder also reduces the possibility of cross-sucking.


Using nipple feeders combined with high volumes of milk also means group housing can become a possibility.


Prof Keyserlingk said: “Lots of research has suggested calves kept in solo confinement have social deprivation issues.


Housing in pairs places less stress on the calf and can improve initial starter intake as the pair copy each other and motivate to consume feed.


“Calves must each have access to their own teat, water and feed bucket, providing a similar set-up to an individual pen. The only difference is the social interaction taking place for most of their growing period.


“The stress of wearing is dramatically reduced when they are housed in a social environment. Studies have revealed paired calves have fewer cognitive problems and are far less fearful of new environments, including the introduction of different feed sources. When an individually housed calf is regrouped with other youngsters in later life, it can take up to 50 hours for it to begin eating again, which can result in a dramatic weight drop when compared with the paired calf, which begins to consume feed after nine hours. The feed intake speaks for itself.


“Even introducing social housing in the last two weeks of the milk feeding period can reduce cognitive stress. The message here is some form of pairing or group housing at this early stage of development can help a heifer’s performance later in its career. Social housing has previously been avoided due to the worry of disease, but if teat feeders are cleaned accordingly, the risk of infection is relatively low.”

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