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Benefits of group housing outweigh fears of cross-sucking

Toa55/Getty Images baby cow taking milk from the bottle
START ’EM OFF RIGHT: Many farmers have resisted group housing of calves because of fears that cross-sucking will lead to health problems down the road. But new research and guidance has shifted, with the benefits of group housing outweighing the risks of cross-sucking.
Cross-sucking is an indication of other things needing to be addressed on the farm.

As more dairy farmers turn to group housing of calves, the challenge is keeping those calves happy so they won’t turn to another outlet for their oral behavior — mainly, cross-sucking other calves.

“I think cross-sucking is more prevalent when you have some of the less desirable things. So if calves aren’t being fed milk, no solid feed like starter or chopped hay, basically they’re not given enough of an outlet for their oral behaviors,” says Lindsay Ferlito, dairy management specialist with Cornell’s North Country Regional Ag Team. “So when there’s not enough time eating or doing oral behaviors that way, this is when cross-sucking becomes an issue.”

Group housing can create competition if there aren’t enough bottles available for calves, leading to another reason for cross-sucking. And if a calf is abruptly weaned and gets frustrated, they might turn to cross-sucking here, too.

Conventional thinking has always recommended against cross-sucking because of potential damage to a calf’s teats or a quarter of the udder becoming infected or “blind.” Therefore, group housing isn’t universal on dairy farms because of farmers’ fears that it will lead to cow health problems down the road, says Casey Havekes, dairy specialist with the North Country Regional Ag Team. But that thinking is changing.

In 2016, four Canadian researchers published a study in the Journal of Dairy Science that showed older calves that were cross-sucked were not significantly more likely to have mastitis during the first lactation than those that were not. Damaged or nonfunctioning udder quarters were not observed in any cow, and no significant differences in somatic cell counts were seen.

“So, I think the social benefits and the behavioral benefits of allowing calves to be pair-housed or group-housed are really strong and powerful," Havekes says. “And I think that the cognitive developments that are associated with that, and I think just in general for welfare and whatnot, I think those benefits, in my opinion, are worthwhile.”

Ferlito says that she tells farmers that while cross-sucking may lead to udder health issues, the benefits far outweigh the negatives. And if your calves are cross-sucking, it’s a good indication that something else on the farm needs to be addressed.

“You can use cross-sucking as an indication that something else might be going on,” Ferlito says. “Maybe they aren't being fed enough; maybe something else is forcing them to cross-suck a lot more. Is the nutrition adequate? Think about things like that.”

Steps to prevent cross-sucking

If you’re still concerned with your calves cross-sucking, Ferlito and Havekes have several steps you can take to prevent it:

Feed enough milk. Feeding calves more milk will increase their time spent eating and help keep them feeling full, which will reduce cross-sucking. Older industry recommendations stated that preweaned calves should consume 10% of their body weight in milk or milk replacer, or about 4 to 6 quarts a day.

When talking to producers who provide calves unlimited access to milk, the animals usually top out at 3 to 3.5 gallons per day. Some producers are concerned about scour, but research suggests cows will be healthier and have better growth.

Feed milk from nipple (slow flow). A recent study from the Journal of Dairy Science found calves that were fed milk via a bottle and teat took longer to eat compared to calves fed milk via a bucket. This translates to less time cross-sucking for the teat bottle-fed calves.

Wean gradually. Industry recommendations suggest waiting until a calf is consuming 2 pounds of grain per day to start reducing milk. The Dairy Calf and Heifer Association Gold Standards suggests calves consume 3 to 4 pounds per day before being weaned.

Reduce competition. Make sure there are enough nipples for the calves in the pen. If you have pair-housed calves, provide them each with a feeding station, and in a group-housed unlimited situation, provide multiple nipples so multiple calves can eat at once.

Offer chopped hay. At a young age, calves won’t each much hay, but research has shown that it can help calves develop feeding behaviors that will be beneficial when their diet consists of more forage. Early hay provisions may increase starter intake, improve feed efficiency, result in higher average daily gain, promote rumen health and may even help with cognitive development.

Feed starter from specialized starter teat bottle. According to Version 4.0 of the FARM Program, all dairies should be offering solid feed (either hay or starter) to calves starting by day three. Most dairies choose to offer a little bit of starter feed in a bucket. Research has found that offering this starter in a specialized starter teat bottle can reduce the amount of time calves spent cross-sucking.

TAGS: Cow-Calf
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