Can a brush boost calf performance?
Yes, says research from the University of Florida

Keeping calves busy during their early lives will lead to healthier, more productive animals. That’s according to research by Dr. Emily Miller-Cushon, an associate professor of animal science at the University of Florida, where she looks at calf behaviour to gain insights into how to improve their management and welfare.

Heifers getting brushed

Miller-Cushon’s main theory is that calves will perform better when they have something to do, like rub up against a brush for example. Social interaction through group housing and how feed is managed will also impact calf performance, but making sure calves are occupied is not something more farmers generally think of right away.

“Calves rest for about 20 hours per day and when they’re awake they want to do something,” said Miller-Cushon in a webinar hosted by Hoard’s Dairyman. “They spend more time grooming than most people would expect, so it’s important to understand this kind of behaviour.”

Grooming includes social grooming—calves grooming each other—as well as self-grooming through licking behaviour or use of calf brushes. Her research found that calves in a pen with a brush, whether a free-access rotating or a stationary brush, spend more time self-grooming and have greater coat cleanliness.

Not all calves respond the same way to the availability of brushes, she noted, as grooming is a behaviour that varies in importance between calves. Overall, the calves in her study used a rotating brush for 20 to 30 minutes during a 12-hour observation period.

A manual brush is a more cost-effective option and can be as simple as an inexpensive scrub brush attached to the side of a pen. Calves still used these brushes, although not as long, spending five to 10 minutes per 12-hour observation period brushing themselves.

“For all calves, their brushing activity increased around the time of milk delivery or just before,” she explained. “Feeding time tends to be when calves are most active, so that’s also when they are seen to use the brush most.”

Calves with access to a brush spent less time on non-nutritive oral behaviour, like sucking on pen fixtures (also called pen-directed sucking). Again, most of this behaviour occurred just before or around the time of milk delivery. According to Miller-Cushon, this suggests that the opportunity to have something else to do, like using a brush, could reduce some of their boredom or frustration.

Researchers also noted that calves with a brush lay down more quickly after feeding and were less likely to spend time pen-sucking.

“Overall, calves spend 40 to 60 minutes per 12-hour period on non-nutritive oral behaviour, which again highlights the importance of giving them things to do while they’re up and active—they seem to need a lot of stimulation,” she said.

Giving calves more choice in how to express natural behaviours, like grooming, will boost their welfare, ultimately leading to better performance. It also accommodates individual differences in their behaviours and can give greater insights into how to detect illness by observing behavioural changes.

And finally, early life stimulation improves their ability to learn and adapt to new situations. Dairy animals will go through a lot of changes in their lives, from grouping and regrouping as weaned calves and housing and diet changes to calving, transition and entering the milking herd.

“We can improve calf welfare performance by giving them more to do, which will impact how the calf copes with management changes throughout its life,” she concluded.

This project was funded by the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, a five-year federal-provincial-territorial initiative.