Listening to the calves


Calves don't lie. They don't care about marketing or latest rearing trends. They like to be warm, they like to be with their buddy's, they like to have enough milk and they need to drink like they would in nature. 

If you take a little time, and you know what to look for you can spot unnatural calf behaviour and recognise what it means.


Cross suckling

So common, it's thought to be normal calf behaviour.

It's not.

Calves suckle on each other or their surroundings after feeding when fed quickly from a fast flow teat or a bucket.

It can be missed when feeders are filled and calves are left to feed, however it is worth taking the time to check for cross suckling as it can cause short term infections and long term damage.

Cross suckling has been noted for years as undesirable behaviour and there are lots of devises available to stop calves cross suckling. But, by addressing the root cause of fast feeding then cross suckling all but disappears!

‘Calves suckling on each other can affect the development of the juvenile udder. This in conjunction with the transmission of mastitis pathogens is prone to lead to heifer mastitis’ Source - Schalm

‘Sucking the immature udder can lead to premature removal of the keratin plug, which protects the individual teats from infection, especially in heifers coming into first milk, as well as navel and skin infections. Source - Jensen and Budde

‘During the trial, it was observed that group-housed calves fed the faster flow teats had a much greater incidence of hyperactivity immediately post feeding and were more likely to engage in non-nutritive sucking of each other’s body parts (including muzzle, navel and udder). ’ Source - Journal of Applied Animal Nutrition

Research Tip! Cross suckling is directly linked to fast feeding. Slow the flow to reduce cross suckling!

Trial MBT after feeding at gate.jpg
Undamaged Teat with Milk Bar Teats.jpg

Calves fed with Milk Bar Teats were settled and content 
after feeding.  All calves had healthy, undamaged teats 
and the keratin plug remains intact to protect the teat 

Cross sucking group.jpg
Damaged Teat from fast group.jpg

Calves fed from a faster flow teat cross-suckled vigorously 
after feeding. Cross-suckling damage and loss of the keratin plug was common. *

*Images taken from research published in the Journal of Applied Animal Nutrition.

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Digestive health   I   Calf Behaviour   I   Feeding    I   Teats vs buckets   I   Using Milk Bar   I   Training 

Nutritional Diarrhoea (scours)

Nutritional scours is not as serious as viral scouring which can devastate your calving season, but it still takes time to treat 
and does have long term consequences. 
Nutritional scours can be linked to two major causes, poor digestion and stress.
Stress can result from a variety of causes. It could be due to irregular feeding, sudden changes in the concentration of milk 
replacers, or a poor quality milk powder. 
Environmental stress can also play a part. Calves don’t like sudden changes in the weather or cold, damp, draughty or humid 
calf sheds.
Digestive stress is a key factor. If the pH in the abomasum is not balanced and the acid secretion is reduced then the ability of 
the milk to clot is compromised as is the digestion of milk protein.
Inadequate clotting allows excess sugar (lactose) to enter the intestines and produce a nutrient source for pathogens such as 
E.Coli who’s numbers multiply rapidly when in contact with raw milk or lactose. This is a leading cause of nutritional scours in 
young calves.  

Aside from the cost and added workload of treating calves with nutritional scours, studies have shown that calves who suffer
from nutritional scours pre weaning have a reduced average daily gain which can impact conception. 
Further studies have shown that nutritional scours pre weaning has a negative impact on first lactation milk production.

Alongside reducing environmental stress, improving digestibility and lactose absorption is key in reducing nutritional scours.
We know from studies that a controlled flow of milk into the calf has a positive effect on digestion by promoting good clotting
and improving lactose absorption. Saliva production helps to balance the pH to further ease stress on the digestive system. 
Feeding the calf at a slow, natural speed will maximise saliva production and ultimately reduce work load.

‘Scours can usually be traced back to a failure of adequate milk digestion in the abomasum.
Nutritional scours is simply the end result of an oversupply of lactose in the intestines, caused by milk moving too rapidly out of the abomasum, so it cannot be broken down quickly enough. 
Nutritional scours often progresses to infectious scours. Pathogens use excess lactose as a nutrient source to increase in numbers. Source- Victoria Department of Primary Industries.  

Cows that had contracted mild diarrhoea during their first 3 months of life had 344 kg lower ECM305 than those without diarrhoea. C. Svensson, J. Hultgren 2008

Under farm conditions, slow release teat system may reduce scours and other digestive problems in young calves during peak milk intake (up to 15 d of age), due to increased ileal digestion of nutrients, preventing undigested nutrient flow to the hind gut.

Source - Journal of Applied Animal Nutrition

Research Tip! Lactose absorption and nutritional diarrhoea are linked. Improve lactose absorption though a controlled milk flow.

Milk Bar calf feeder

Calves fed from the controlled flow Milk Bar Teat


Analysis showed these calves had 3mg of lactose remaining in the abomasum and

very little lactose through the intestines.

The lactose had been absorbed into the blood stream, boosting calorie intake.

With minimal lactose in the intestines to feed pathogens, these calves are less likely to suffer from nutritional diarrhoea.

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Abomasum Fast Teats.jpg

Calves fed with a fast flow teat

Analysis showed these calves had 12mg of lactose present in the abomasum and high levels of lactose through the entire intestinal tract.

Reduced lactose absorption reduces the energy required for growth. High levels of lactose in the intestines feeds pathogens and puts these calves at a high risk of nutritional diarrhoea.

Breakaway behaviour

It’s easy to think that young calves will be easier to train on a fast flow teat but actually it causes issues with breakaway behaviour!   
Breakaway behaviour is when calves becomes unsettled when feeding and ‘breaks away’ from feeding. Typically you see this in calves fed from a fast flow teat. Calves struggle with the high flow of milk and will come off the teat and either drop their head and cough or try to find another teat that is more comfortable.

Breakaway behaviour disrupts the feeding time and can influence the milk volume the calf uptakes. For calves fed in groups this can lead to unequal milk intake. Breakaway behaviour can contribute to extra training time.


When calves are delivered milk with a controlled flow, break away behaviour is reduced to the occasional repositioning.   

‘Young calves fed fast teats exhibit ‘break away’ behaviour, whereby they release the teat and back off from feeding every now and then during the feeding period, and are harder to get started on the calfeteria system at one day old. This may be due to satiety being reached faster, hence their not wanting to consume the milk in one sitting. For calves fed using the slow teats, these do not show so much of this behaviour, and appear to be easier to start on the teats at a young age. .’ Source - LWT Animal Nutrition

‘Calves fed from a fast flow teat were significantly more unsettled with feeding interrupted multiple times by breakaway behaviour.’ 
Source - M. Sc. Ostendorf

Research Tip! Fast feeding causes breakaway behaviour. Control the flow so calves can have a settled feed.