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Optimizing nurse cow selection for calf health

Optimizing nurse cow selection for calf health

By Blake Jackson

Labor shortages in some dairy farms are leading to a novel solution: using "nurse cows" to feed calves. These foster mothers can raise multiple calves, reducing labor needs while potentially improving calf health.

Developed in Europe 15-20 years ago and recently adopted in the US, nurse cow systems are still under research. Farmers are learning through trial and error, with some key considerations:

  • Nurse Cow Selection: There's no one-size-fits-all approach. Some farms choose cows based on maternal instincts, while others use healthy cows with slightly higher than average milk production. The goal is to find low-maintenance cows that can maintain their own health while nourishing calves.
  • Cow Health: Nurse cows are typically chosen mid-lactation to minimize the risk of disease transmission to calves. Most farms cull them after one lactation, but some may explore breeding options.
  • Farm Setup: Freestall barns, common in conventional dairy farms, are not ideal for nurse cow systems because they can make it difficult to keep calves clean. Organic or grazing farms tend to be a better fit.
  • Early Implementation: Just like bottle or bucket feeding, starting calves on a nurse cow system early is crucial for successful bonding. The suckling process triggers oxytocin production, which strengthens the calf-cow bond.
  • Calf Care: Even with nurse cows, calves still need their first colostrum feeding to develop immunity. Regular human interaction (at least twice a week) is also essential to prevent calves from becoming feral.
  • Weaning: There's no single best method for weaning calves from nurse cows. Farmers use various approaches like abrupt weaning, fenceline weaning, and nose-flap weaning, but research is lacking in this area.

Overall, nurse cow systems show promise for reducing labor needs and improving calf health. However, the limited research requires farmers to rely on experience and adapt their approach based on their specific circumstances.

Photo Credit: istock-simplycreativephotography

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Categories: Pennsylvania, Livestock, Dairy Cattle

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