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0609 PD: Is positive human contact beneficial to dairy heifers?

Peter Krawczel Published on 09 April 2009

The transition from the dry period to the lactating period is difficult for all cows. These changes are especially traumatic for heifers that are not only undergoing the physiological changes associated with calving and the onset of lactating, but adapting to a new housing environment and the novelty of the milking routine. Furthermore, these heifers are forced to adjust to an increased amount of contact with the farm staff.

Researchers from Newcastle University in the U.K. investigated if a short bout of positive human interaction would be sufficient to reduce the problematic behavior displayed by heifers within the parlor, such as being reluctant to enter the parlor and increased amounts of kicking, urination and defecation. These behaviors were reported to increase the likelihood of culling for those heifers.

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The positive interaction consisted of one researcher entering the pen and brushing an unrestrained heifer for five minutes each week for six or 13 weeks before calving. The behavior of these heifers was compared with control heifers who received minimal handling during routine farm management practices.

After calving, the heifers were observed during their first four trips to the parlor and four additional milkings during the next three weeks. Latency to initial milk letdown (defined as the first appearance of milk in the clear base of the milking unit), foot stomping and kicking were recorded. The behavior of the heifers was also given a subjective score from the milkers who were unaware of the precalving treatment.

Milk letdown occurred significantly faster in the treatment heifers compared to the control group. Treatment heifers were less likely to kick while in close (less than 3 feet) proximity to the milker. Finally, treatment heifers tended to be viewed more positively in the subjective evaluation.

The response to brief periods of human contact during the weeks prior to calving suggests an opportunity exists to reduce some of the difficulties associated with bringing new heifers into the milking herd. The minimal time investment (30 minutes per cow spread over six weeks) indicates that it could be practical to implement this treatment into the management practices of commercial farms. PD

—Excerpts from Miner Institute Farm Report, October 2008

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Peter Krawczel
William H. Miner Agricultural Institute

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