A survey of dairy calf management practices among farms using manual and automated milk feeding systems in Canada

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Source: Journal of Dairy Science

ABSTRACT

Dairy calves in North America traditionally are housed individually and fed by manual milk feeding (MMF) systems with buckets or bottles. Automated milk feeders (AMF) allow for more natural milk feeding frequencies and volumes, and calves are usually housed in groups.

The objectives of this study were to (1) determine the prevalence of various milk-fed calf management and feeding practices and (2) compare these practices between dairy farms using MMF and AMF systems. A national online survey was performed from January to May 2015 to quantify management practices for the care of milk-fed dairy calves in Canada.

A total of 670 responses were received (6% of all dairy farms in Canada). Among respondents, 16% used AMF and 84% used MMF. Seventy percent of the farms using AMF had freestall barns compared with only 48% of those using MMF. A greater proportion of AMF farms (30%) also had automatic milking systems (AMS) compared with MMF farms (8%). Among tiestall farms, a herd size of >80 milking cows was associated with having an AMF [odds ratio (OR) = 3.8; 95% confidence interval (CI): 1.6–11.4]. For freestall or bedded-pack farms, a herd size of >80 milking cows (OR = 3.5; CI: 1.8–6.6), having an AMS (OR = 3.1; CI: 1.6–5.7), and use of cow brushes (OR = 3.1; CI: 1.3–6.9) were associated with having an AMF. Calves fed with AMS typically were housed in groups of 10 to 15, whereas almost 76% of the farms with MMF housed calves individually. Although both AMF and MMF farms fed similar amounts of milk in the first week of life (median = 6 L/d), the cumulative volume fed in the first 4 wk differed significantly, with a median of 231 versus 182 L for AMF and MMF, respectively. Median peak milk allowance was higher for AMF than for MMF (10 vs. 8 L/d, respectively).

In summary, farms using AMF were larger, provided more milk to calves, and used more automation in general (i.e., in other areas of their operation). These data provide insights into calf-rearing practices across Canada and into how the use of AMF is affecting calf feeding and management on dairy farms.