Research seeks to improve calf welfare

Emma Cuttance, head of VetEnt Research.

New research will observe calves in the hours immediately following their birth to better understand how feeding patterns and farm management during this time influence their ability to resist disease.

“Ultimately, the goal of the research is to improve calf welfare,” says Emma Cuttance, head of VetEnt Research, who is leading the study.

“We know that a calf’s ability to overcome disease challenges are dependent on obtaining high quality colostrum.

“What we don’t know for sure is what happens in paddock before the calf is separated from its mother, because previous research done in 2015 has focused on what happens after they arrive at the calf shed.”

Around 70 per cent of New Zealand farmers collect new calves once per day, so good information about how well cows are feeding their calves, and whether there are things farmers can do to support initial feeding will be helpful to improving calf welfare, says Emma.

“We want to understand how long it takes for calves to get their first feed, how often they feed in the period between when they are born and when they are moved to the shed.

“We’ll also be observing cow and calf interaction, and recording other variables like pasture cover, stocking rates, size of the feed break and more.”

Designing the research was challenging because the logistics of gathering data is difficult, says Emma.

“Research techs will be on commercial farms observing calving for 24 hours per day, six days per week. They will work in shifts to collect data during 12 full days per farm, and will be positioned on scissor lifts to minimise disruption.

“Research like this hasn’t been undertaken before in New Zealand on this scale.”

Blood tests to gather data on the level of antibodies will be taken immediately after the calf is removed from its mother and again three days later. This will help provide a picture of how what’s happening in the paddock and in the calf shed is working, says Emma.

Data will be collected at two North Island and two South Island farms per year as part of the two-year study.

Welfare Matters Action Group, of which VetEnt Research is a member, secured a $260,000 grant from the Sustainable Farming Fund to fund the research.

And AGMARDT, Massey University, Veterinary Enterprises Group Ltd and Dairy Cattle Veterinarians Society of NZVA are also contributing to the research costs.

Research results will be presented at the World Veterinary Conference to be held in Auckland in April 2020. The results will also be presented to farmers and rural professionals as soon as possible in 2020 and 2021, says Emma.

This research, which focuses on calf welfare in the first week of life, is part one of what VetEnt Research hopes will become a three-part research project.

Subject to securing further funding, the impact of delayed separation on both cow and calf will be examined and work to understand the quality of colostrum and how that changes with management is also planned.


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