Research Article: Growth rate, health and welfare in a dairy herd with natural suckling until 6–8 weeks of age: a case report

Date Published: June 23, 2007

Publisher: BioMed Central

Author(s): Ann Margaret Grøndahl, Ellen Margrete Skancke, Cecilie Marie Mejdell, Johan Høgset Jansen.


Over a period of two years, growth rate and health were measured for dairy calves allowed to suckle their mothers up to 6–8 weeks of age. Thirty-one calves were weighted weekly, and the mean daily growth rate was 1.2 ± 0.03 kg from birth up to 13 weeks of age. Illness in calves and young stock was not observed. In the cows, the mean incidences of ketosis, displaced abomasum, puerperal paresis, mastitis, teat injury and retained placenta were 0, 0, 8, 22, 1 and 1%, respectively, during a 6-year period. The mean daily gain of 56 growing bulls was 1.4 kg when slaughtered at 15 months of age, which is higher than the mean daily gain of 0.95 kg in the population. Probiotics, hormones and vaccines were not used, and antibiotics were only used for treating illness. The present study indicates many advantages and few problems when dairy calves are penned together with the cows and allowed natural feeding up to 6–8 weeks of age. This production system was easy to manage, preferred by the farmer, and may satisfy the public concern regarding the practice of immediate separation of cow and calf in commercial milk production.

Partial Text

In most dairy herds in North America and European countries, calves are separated from their mothers immediately or few hours after birth. During the first weeks of life, the calves are usually kept in individual pens, which prevent calves from suckling one another, minimize the spread of disease, and simplify feeding and disease detection. The calves are fed milk artificially, either by bucket or a teat feeding system. It is recommended to feed dairy calves milk twice daily an amount equivalent to 10% of their body weight, until weaning at about 6 weeks of age [1,2]. Normal oral and ingestive behaviour pattern is prohibited by separation of newborn calves from their mothers. The segregation eliminates the maternal care and the influence of adults on calf behaviour, and the individual penning restricts movements and social interference with other calves.

In the present study, the daily weight gain ranged between 0.9 – 1.3 kg per week up to 13 weeks of age, which is higher than the weight gain reported in other studies. According to Appleby et al. [7], calves offered milk ad libitum from a teat feeding system from birth until 2 weeks of age more than doubled their gained weight (0.85 kg/d) compared to bucket fed calves given milk twice daily at 5% of the body weight per meal (0.36 kg/d). Calves allowed to suckle their mother for 14 days gained weight at more than three times the rate (59.9 kg at 14 days of age) compared to those separated the first 24 hours (46.9 kg at 14 days of age), and the difference was maintained until at least day 28 [10]. In these two studies, milk offered ad libitum and natural suckling were superior to restricted feeding regarding weight gain. Ad libitum milk feeding systems were not observed to increase health problems by Appleby et al. [7] and Chua et al. [14]. A weight gain of 1.1 kg/d was observed the first 28 days of age in 28 dairy calves fed whole milk from an artificial teat [8].

Weight gain and health in a dairy herd performing natural suckling up to 6–8 weeks of age revealed an mean weight gain of 1.2 kg/d for calves up to 13 weeks of age, and absence of illness in calves, young stock and growing bulls. The production system allows natural behaviour as suckling and play, and may satisfy the public concern regarding immediate separation of cow and calf in commercial milk production. Furthermore, the farmer found it easy to manage and preferable to conventional production.

The author(s) declare that they have no competing interests.

All authors have read and approved the final manuscript.