Researchers and farmers alike are uncovering benefits of pair or group housing for calves, from cognitive learning, behavioral flexibility, adaptability, and resilience to stress.

Still, one reservation around colocating preweaned calves is the occurrence of cross sucking. Rekia Salter, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, talked about this concern and ways to reduce the behavior during her presentation at the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin’s (PDPW) annual business conference.

She said that in the winter, calves with wet ears from cross sucking can suffer from frostbite. Persistent cross sucking of the navel can also lead to infection. And even though research has not shown a link between cross sucking and future milk quality, there is concern that sucking on the developing teats and udder could lead to mastitis down the road.

Salter’s research looked into options for cost-effectively converting single calf housing into pair housing and practices that would discourage cross sucking. She studied five groups of calves:

  1. Individually housed, fed milk and starter in buckets
  2. Pair housed, fed milk and starter in buckets
  3. Pair housed, fed milk and starter in buckets, plus starter in a Braden bottle
  4. Pair housed, fed milk through a nipple and starter in a bucket
  5. Pair housed, fed milk through a nipple, starter in a bucket, plus starter in a Braden bottle

Her work found that paired calves approached and ate calf starter sooner. Paired calves with access to a Braden bottle consumed starter even earlier. The paired calves also ate more.

Grouped calves fed milk with pails did exhibit cross sucking behavior. However, cross sucking was less frequent among the calves provided milk through a slow flow teat that extended their milk meal.

When asked what one practice made the most difference in minimizing cross sucking, Salter said, “Feed the milk from a slow flow teat, and keep it in the pen 20 minutes after a milk meal. That alone had a significant effect on oral behavior.”

Other proven practices Salter shared that can reduce the incidence of cross sucking include:

  • Feed sufficient milk, at least 2 gallons a day
  • Provide a dummy or dry treat
  • At weaning, step down milk feeding gradually

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(c) Hoard's Dairyman Intel 2020
May 4, 2020
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