Improve your calves' performance by giving them more to do, expert says

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
Dr. Emily Miller-Cushon says the ability to easily adapt to changes later in life highly depends on calf management and welfare from birth.

Emily Miller-Cushon, an assistant professor of animal sciences at the University of Florida, gives some tips on improving calf management and welfare through behavioral studies.

Miller-Cushon shared her research during a webinar from Hoard's Dairyman. She said dairy farmers should give their calves access to as many activities and resources as they can to ensure better behavioral development from birth to post-weaning. The ability to easily adapt to changes later in life highly depends on calf management and welfare from birth, she said.

Giving calves the chance to self-groom, socialize and feed regularly has been found to improve learning ability and decrease competitiveness, Miller-Cushon said. Providing choices helps calves develop personalities and more variability in choices accommodates a diverse herd.

Social housing

Miller-Cushon said her research shows that there are broad benefits to group-housing calves rather than individually housing them. She explained that socializing calves as early as possible is crucial for behavioral development that will affect the rest of their lives, especially in pre-weaning stages. Social isolation, she said, has long-term negative affects, like cognitive impairments and neurological changes.

While the long-term effects of social housing are not yet strictly defined, Miller-Cushon said the immediate effects include reducing fear, improving bonding abilities and even eating better. She found that social contact stimulates feed intake and improves positive weight gain.

However, it's important to manage feeding areas and times effectively to decrease competitive eating, which has negative social effects – she said farmers should keep the number of calves per autofeeder or feeding bucket as low as possible.

Emily Miller-Cushon is an assistant professor of animal sciences at the University of Florida.

While the right time to start group-housing calves depends on your own herd's behavioral tendencies and personalities, generally the earlier the better, Miller-Cushon recommends. It's also important to consider modifications, like barriers in pens, to prevent competition between calves because social dynamics in group housing can be variable. 

Calves also develop individual personalities where some may enjoy alone time more than others. It may be helpful to build an isolation pen, Miller-Cushon said, that will allow less extroverted calves to lay down away from other calves if they aren't in the mood to do other activities. Farmers should also pay attention to calves spending a lot of time in the isolation pen, because behavioral changes can indicate pain or sickness.

Feeding management

Miller-Cushon said dairy farmers can also use their feeding management style to discourage calves' non-nutritive oral behaviors, like sucking or chewing on parts of their pen housing or rolling their tongues. Some methods of decreasing those behaviors include increasing feed levels and adding hay to calf diets.

Changing how you wean your calves can also improve behavior later on, like weaning more gradually over several weeks, weaning a few weeks later than average or weaning based on individual calf behavior rather than age.

Providing hay along with starter feed can also have positive effects, such as increasing solid feed intake, improving rumen environment pH and reducing non-nutritive oral behaviors, Miller-Cushon said. When calves have free access to hay during active hours, they become more stimulated and tend to eat more, which improves some behavioral qualities.

The type of feeding method also has some effects on non-nutritive oral behavior – Miller-Cushon's study found that autofeeding, especially when combined with hay, reduced sucking and biting on other objects, while bucket feeding increased it. Pre-weaning diets may also have an affect on cognition, shown by a study in which calves given hay along with starter feed learned and relearned tasks more quickly than those without.

Self-grooming behavioral expression

Miller-Cushon said dairy farmers should give their calves as much access to self-grooming tools as possible as another avenue of behavioral expression. One tool is a free-access rotating brush, which calves were shown to use in studies that encouraged self-grooming and led to more coat cleanliness. Stationary brushes placed on pen walls are a more budget-friendly alternative.

Farmers should recognize the importance of self-grooming among calves, Miller-Cushon said, because even though it seems low on the totem pole of importance in all the things you have to worry about raising calves, encouraging calves to groom themselves can have many positive effects on their behavior, like reducing stress and frustration.

While usage may depend on individual calf personality, using a rotating or stationary brush prevented non-nutritive oral behaviors, and it also generally improved sociability with other calves and encouraged personal motivation.