UK1: Leaving calves suckling with milking cows

Monitoring performance of a system leaving calves suckling with milking cows

Summary of final report:
There is a notion that rearing calves on milking cows is a more “natural” and “welfare friendly” practice compared to the conventional practices (i.e. bucket feeding) currently applied. Rearing calves on cows can also be perceived as a method to reduce labour costs and costs of purchasing milk replacer. However, this practice may impose some negative effects as cow contact with calves running loose in the herd may increase the risk of mastitis. The implications that this rearing method will have on the system as a whole have not been studied systematically in the UK.

A farmer in South West Scotland has commenced rearing calves on their mothers as a component within a move to a “lean farming” approach and wished to monitor the effects of this practice on animal health, welfare, productivity and economic viability of the farm. A participatory case-study approach was adopted with the farmer and his family being the main responsible for carrying out the management operations and the collection of the data. Contrary to the farmer’s expectations systematic analysis of the data showed that under conditions of unrestricted suckling the amount of the sellable milk available was too low to maintain the economic viability of the farm and the calf-rearing system appeared to be financially questionable. Rough teats in terms of dryness were more prevalent in the group of cows suckling calves than in the group of (late lactation) cows that were not suckled by calves. The body-weight gain of the suckled calves was exceptionally high (0.9kg/day) compared to bucket fed calves (0.65 kg/day).

The study suggest that further adaptation of the management system is necessary to achieve a financially viable way of producing milk for sale while rearing calves naturally on their dams. It is foreseen that the results of this case study will be brought together with the experience of Danish Organic Farmers rearing calves naturally.


Overview, participatory research

UK projects followed:

1: Monitoring performance of a system leaving calves suckling with milking cows
2: Productivity of diverse swards and mob grazing
3: Diverse swards farm comparison
4: Soil and pasture productivity
5: Discussion group to reduce antibiotic use
6: Cow nutrition and health

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