COLUMNISTS

Brushes do more than just groom cows and calves

Tina Kohlman
Brushes have grown in popularity on farms for the lactating herd, providing both sensory and physical enrichment for the cow.

Brushes have grown in popularity on farms for the lactating herd, providing both sensory and physical enrichment for the cow. Not only do they provide an outlet for cattle to self-groom particularly in places hard to reach but also provides additional enrichment within their housing environment to reduce stress or frustration from boredom and encouragement to interact with other animals.  

Past research has shown enrichment can encourage cattle to better adjust to challenges and cope with change and stressors.  Research has also indicated an increase in milk production in those cows who used a brush as compared to ones that have not. 

Enrichment aims to promote natural behaviors. There are five types of environmental enrichment:  social, occupational, physical, sensory, and nutritional. 

Today’s calf environment provides many of the basic needs for pre-weaned calves:  access to feed and water, protection from extreme environmental conditions, and a dry resting place.  However, most modern calf raising facilities lack physical stimulation for the calf and minimize the calf’s ability to perform natural behaviors. 

Recent research has shown benefits from paired or social housing on social enrichment and allowing natural calf behaviors such as play and grooming to occur, but less research has focused on other forms of enrichment, such as adding items to the calf’s physical environment.   

Grooming is a natural behavior 

Grooming is a natural behavior in calves, contributing to the calf’s thermoregulation, keeping the body clean of manure, urine, etc., and promoting social interactions by reducing aggressive or submissive behaviors. 

Grooming is a natural behavior in calves, contributing to the calf’s thermoregulation, keeping the body clean and promoting social interactions by reducing aggressive or submissive behaviors.

Grooming behavior has been under-researched in dairy calves. Providing pre-weaned calves brushes can provide physical enrichment, preventing frustration and abnormal behaviors, while promoting animal welfare by allowing the calf to display natural behaviors such as grooming, licking, and chewing.  It has also been shown the amount of time calves utilized brushes for grooming is similar in the amount of time a calf would receive maternal grooming, suggesting a brush may act as a partial substitute for maternal care and should be further investigated. 

Pre-weaned calves and brushes

Pempek, et al. in 2017 investigated calves’ use of including physical items such as stationary brushes, ropes, springs, plastic chains, nets filled with strawberry scented hay, and dry teats when included in individual hutches. Even though calves engaged with all the items, it was found the calves used the stationary brush for grooming more frequently than the other items which engaged sucking or oral manipulation.

In the same year Zobel et al. found calves, when offered a rotating brush and rope in their housing environment, engaged with both items equally for 27.1 minutes per day.  However, calves frequented the brush nearly 3 times more often, but for shorter periods, 17.8 seconds per time as compared to frequenting the rope for 38.3 second per time. University of Florida research showed calves without access to rotating brushes displayed abnormal oral behaviors. 

When looking at the effects after weaning of providing calves physical enrichment items, pair housing, or both on weight gain, behavior, and cognitive ability, University of Reading research suggested improved average daily gain when calves were provided both physical enrichment and pair housing.  It was also suggested offering physical enrichment may improve calves’ memories and stimulate their exploration for new environments after weaning and regrouping, thus reducing weaning stress. 

Stationary brushes may be an economical option than automated rotating brushes for calves. Even though rotating brushes are predominantly used in adult cattle to groom hard-to-reach places, research indicated calves utilize brushes predominantly for their head and neck areas. 

Recently UW-Madison researchers investigated stocking density on stationary brush use and competition by weaned heifers. It was found over 60% of brush use by the weaned heifers was for grooming.  Brush quantity did not impact the overall duration of brush use or competition.  However, when provided more brushes, heifers used the brush for a longer period.  Thus, providing four brushes to a group of 8 heifers provided a greater opportunity for uninterrupted brush use. 

Much still needs to be investigated regarding brush use and the long-term effects on calves. But for now, a simple investment in brushes could improve a calf’s welfare through physical enrichment. 

Tina Kohlman

Tina Kohlman is the UW-Madison Extension Regional Dairy Educator for Fond du Lac, Ozaukee, Sheboygan, and Washington Counties

Extension University of Wisconsin-Madison