Pre-weaning management of calves on commercial dairy farms and its influence on calf welfare and mortality

Barry, J.; Bokkers, E.A.M.; Boer, I.J.M. De; Kennedy, E.


Welfare and management of calves is of increasing interest and also influences performance of these animals in later life. The aim of this study was to assess management and environmental conditions under which pre-weaned dairy calves are reared on commercial Irish dairy farms. We included 47 spring-calving, pasture-based herds in this study. Herd and animal-specific data, such as mortality rate, age and breed, were gathered from all participants via the HerdPlus® database. Information pertaining to management practices was collected by conducting an interview with the principal calf rearer, while an assessment of calf housing facilities was conducted to identify conditions calves were reared in. The environmental assessment included measurements of space allowance per calf, as well as feeding equipment hygiene. To assess calf behaviour video observations were used, while accounting for the number of calves present in a group and the space available per calf. Faecal samples were also collected to determine the presence of enteric pathogens among calves. To compare calf space allowance, group size and presence of enteric pathogens early and late in the calving season each farm was visited twice. Calf mortality was not associated with either herd size, space allowance per calf or post-colostrum feeding practices. Higher calf mortality was identified among herds which reported experiencing an on-set of calf pneumonia during weeks 8 to 10 of the calving season. This study demonstrates that factors associated with calf welfare on commercial Irish dairy farms (e.g. space allowance, mortality rate) are independent of herd size. Some management practices however, such as methods used for treating health issues can affect rates of calf mortality experienced. Calf mortality, for example, was lower in herds which treated diarrhoea cases by administering electrolytes, while continuing to offer milk. Behavioural observations indicate that smaller group sizes could promote expression of positive behaviours, potentially resulting from an overall improvement in welfare. Space allowance per calf was not associated with observed behaviour frequencies. We also identified that similar rates of calf mortality are experienced across herds of different sizes.