Cross-Sucking Behaviour In Dairy Calves

One of the concerns dairy farmers have over paired or group housing of calves is the increased risk of cross-sucking and any associated navel problems.

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There is a strong and consistent link between milk intake and a calf’s motivation to suck. A behavioural study found that non-feeding sucking behaviour is largely related to the taste of milk rather than hunger, because most of this behaviour occurs immediately after a milk feed. One study showed that bucket-fed calves spent 44 seconds drinking milk and then 10 minutes sucking on an empty bucket!

However, food intake is still important as it was reported that calves on a lower milk ration had a slightly higher frequency of cross-sucking so it is important to feed more milk, especially in the first 4 weeks of life.

Non-feeding sucking is normal behaviour and contributes to the feeling of being full (satiety), therefore it is important to allow calves to perform non-feeding sucking. Satisfaction of this behaviour will then reduce the occurrence of cross-sucking.

Reducing Cross-Sucking Behaviour

Here are some practical suggestions to try:

  • Use teat feeders rather than bucket feeding
  • Provide more teats than the number of calves in a group
  • Provide a dedicated sucking station for 10–15 minutes immediately after a milk feed e.g. a dry teat at a normal height for sucking or a small amount of water provided in a clean teat feeder
  • Use teats with a very small hole to reduce milk flow and increase drinking time
  • Provide hay at the end of a meal.

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