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Background & aims

Background information

In a natural setting, newborn calves make their first attempt to suckle shortly after birth by using several cues (e.g. the dam's shape, odors, vocalizations and cow-calf interactions such as the dam licking the calf) to locate the dam's udder. However, successful suckling under natural conditions is not always guaranteed.

In commercial dairy farms, the newborn calf is presented with an even greater feeding challenge. It is common practice to separate the calf from the dam within a few hours after birth and place it in a single calf pen for the first days of life. At this point, one of the main tasks for the calf caretakers is to introduce the newborn calves to suckling from an artificial teat attached to a milk bucket. Learning how to use the artificial teat is, however, not equally easy for all calves. With the dam removed, the single calf pens lack the natural sensory cues a calf would encounter under natural circumstances in order to stand up and suckle. The artificial teat may not be as attractive as the natural teat due to differences in e.g. texture, firmness, temperature or odor, and this may be especially true for calves that had the chance to suckle their dams before separation. Separation stress may also be a hindering factor, particularly for calves that spent several hours with their dam before being separated and transferred to a single calf pen.

On average, healthy newborn calves learn to suckle from the artificial teat within the first two days of their lives. Missing meals during these critical first days due to physical weakness, illness or difficulty in learning the feeding system may lead to hunger-induced stress and undernutrition which may, in turn, compromise the calf's immune system, leaving it more susceptible to neonatal diseases. Furthermore, calf caretakers are required to spend a substantial amount of time helping the problematic newborn calves to suckle, which can lead to disruption of the frequently intense farm routines.

After being born, dairy cales are separated from the dam and placed in a single calf pen, where they learn to use an artificial feeding system.
After being born, dairy cales are separated from the dam and placed in a single calf pen, where they learn to use an artificial feeding system.

Main aims of the study

The idea behind this project was to find out if I can help newborn calves learn to use the artificial teat quickly after birth by providing them with sensory stimuli that are easy to obtain and apply at the farm, at an affordable cost. My study focused on the first step of this research:

  • I examined whether newborn calves prefer suckling a dry artificial teat (that did not provide a milk reward) that has been modified with a potentially attractive odor or taste substance over a plain artificial teat.
  • I also investigated whether one of the substances motivated the calves to suckle for a longer time, and whether this motivation varied with age.
  • Finally, I recorded the age at which newborn calves could suckle from an artificial teat without lifting assistance for the first time.

Responsible for this page: Agneta Johansson
Last updated: 05/15/17