Calf rearing - research update

Published 23 August 10

Article publication date: August 2010

DairyCo extension officer Karen Lancaster was invited to attend the 3rd Boehringer Ingleheim Expert Forum on Farm Animal Well-Being in Barcelona, June 2010. Here, Karen talks about one of the papers she found particularly interesting.

"Professor Marina von Keyserlingk, from the University of British Columbia presented her research into calf rearing," says Karen, "She has found that early separation of the calf from the dam lead to less stress in both animals. Early separation means they are separated before the maternal bond has been properly formed. She's been able to see this by a difference in activity and vocalisation in both the cow and calf.

"She also looked at issues around  teat verses bucket feeding and showed that teat fed calves gained on average (from birth to weaning) 0.3kg per day of weight more than the bucket fed calves and importantly this weight advantage was maintained after weaning."

"There is a school of thought that you should limit calves' milk intake as this encourages them to eat more solid food.  Professor von Keyserlingk's work shows that this is true during the pre-weaning period, with restricted milk calves eating almost twice the amount (0.17kg vs 0.9kg) as non-restricted calves. However, as soon as both groups of calves were weaned their intakes evened out and were the same averaged over the period of the two weeks post weaning."

"Obviously providing more milk has its implications, not only financially but practically," says Karen. "The general thought is that if you provide ad lib milk, calves will hang around the teats for longer periods of time and that you will need loads of teat access per calf.  However, Prof von Keyserlingk's research shows that calves fed ad lib milk from teats actually only spend 45 minutes drinking per day, which is less than restricted fed calves. This is because restricted calves are often hungry and so keep returning to the teat in the hope of more milk, whilst ad lib calves get what they want then go and lie down.

Karen continues; "Prof von Keyserlingk also looked at whether you can restrict the ad-lib milk to certain periods of the day rather than it being available 24 hours, and what effect this would have on intakes. The answer seems to be none, as intakes remained the same when ad lib milk was offered for only four hours per day.

"After hearing this speaker it also made me rethink the issues around abrupt weaning in calves fed more than the conventional 4l of milk per day." Karen says. "They have been growing rapidly in the days and weeks before weaning and suffer a huge growth check if abruptly weaned.  Instead farmers need to think about decreasing the milk over a 10 day period as this provides the best balance of maximal growth pre weaning and the best solid food intakes.

"The received wisdom is that calves should be individually housed to maximise performance and minimise disease risk.  But new research shows that pair housed calves perform as well as individually housed calves up to weaning and then show significantly less stress and less of a growth check at weaning. There were no signs of aggression or cross sucking and there was no difference in milk intake, solid feed intake or the incidence of scours or other disease in pair housed calves.

There were also welfare benefits when these calves were introduced to larger groups.  Calves that had been singly housed previously took on average 50 hours to begin feeding when introduced into larger groups, in comparison to just nine hours for pair housed calves."

Article written for All things dairy, August 2010 issue