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Reduce cross-sucking using simple adjustments to feeding methods

Jennifer Van Os for Progressive Dairy Published on 18 November 2021

Calves can cross-suck on each other not only when housed in pairs or groups, but also when housed individually with contact through pen dividers.

Excessive cross-sucking is thought to lead to problems such as frostbitten ears, navel infections, later-life udder damage, blind quarters or mastitis. A small handful of studies so far have evaluated these potential negative outcomes and have not found consistent relationships with cross-sucking. Still, cross-sucking is an abnormal behavior, which producers see as a nuisance.

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A common strategy to try to stop calves from cross-sucking is to attach plastic nose flaps to the septum. Then, when they try to suck on other calves, the latter react to the feeling of the hard, protruding flap and push away the offender. Unfortunately, nose flaps do not address calves’ underlying reasons for cross-sucking and can also cause painful lesions.

Young calves are strongly motivated to suckle, so there is no silver bullet guaranteed to eliminate cross-sucking. However, several research studies have identified simple feeding strategies to greatly reduce the amount of cross-sucking calves perform. The two most important keys are to: First, feed a generous quantity of milk or milk replacer, and second, allow calves ample opportunity to suckle on appropriate objects instead of each other.

Cross-sucking is partially influenced by hunger and increases when calves are on restricted milk or milk replacer programs. A daily milk allowance of 8 to 10 quarts or more per day is the first key to reducing cross-sucking. A generous milk allowance also provides the foundation for optimal calf welfare, health and growth.

The way milk is provided also matters because it affects meal length and the opportunity to express appropriate suckling behavior. Calves are observed to suckle at any time of day but mainly during and immediately after milk meals. A calf’s desire to suckle continues for at least 20 minutes after she is done drinking. This post-meal suckling serves an important function of promoting digestion and feelings of fullness by stimulating the release of digestive hormones. The behavior may be directed toward objects in the calf’s surroundings, such as buckets or fencing, or toward the body parts of other calves, which is cross- sucking.

Producers commonly start newborn calves on bottles then transition them to buckets, known as “bucket breaking.” One reason for this is based on a common misconception that feeding from nipples for longer periods will teach or form a habit of suckling, leading to later cross-sucking. This is inaccurate – instead, it is important to remember that suckling is an innate, natural behavior for calves. Therefore, calves should be given an appropriate outlet to express this behavior. Many studies have shown that nipple feeding significantly reduces cross-sucking compared to bucket feeding. To extend the meal length, nipples designed to deliver a slower flow rate are recommended.

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In addition, calves need access to something to suck on for at least 20 minutes after they finish the milk meal. It is important that management protocols relating to cleaning milk-feeding equipment allow calves enough time to finish suckling. When providing prolonged access to a milk nipple is not feasible, an alternative is to provide stand-alone nipples, which can remain in the pen to serve as pacifiers.

Some producers have tried Braden Start bottles, which have a specialized nipple allowing starter to pass through, as a novel strategy to give calves prolonged access to a nipple. This strategy had never been tested in a research study until we recently conducted an experiment at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. In our study, calves were bottle-fed milk until they were 2 weeks old, when they were switched to either standard buckets or slow-flow teat buckets (Figure 1). All calves were fed 8 quarts of pasteurized milk across two daily meals.

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In addition, half of the calves in each milk-delivery treatment were fed starter grain in a standard open bucket. The other half were given Braden Start bottles (Figure 2). Those calves were also given buckets of starter right away to avoid having to later train them to eat starter from buckets.

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On average, calves began eating starter soon after it was offered: 13 versus 33 minutes (give or take six minutes) for those in the Braden treatment versus those in the bucket-only treatment. Within pairs given the option of both starter bottles and open buckets for starter, 22 out of 30 calves (73%) ate from a starter bottle first, likely because of the familiarity of the bottle shape, which was similar to how they were initially fed milk. Over the longer term, total starter intake was similar on an as-fed basis between calves fed starter only in open buckets and those also offered starter bottles. The latter consumed most of their starter from their buckets, and starter intake in both groups increased with age (Figure 3). 

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We observed very little milk stealing within the pairs in our study. Calves fed using teat buckets sometimes pushed each other off the nipple after the milk was gone, likely because they could not see into the opaque buckets to know whether there was any milk left. Although the calves appeared to be competing, they were not actually stealing milk from each other.

Calves fed milk using slow-flow teat buckets took about three-times longer to finish their milk at each meal compared to those fed in open buckets. They spent less time sucking on their water buckets, hutches, fencing, and – most importantly – on each other (Figure 4). The calves fed milk from open buckets showed significantly less cross-sucking when they also had a starer bottle. The starter bottle stayed on the fencing 24-7 and required less management than the teat buckets for milk. Still, feeding milk with slow-flow teats was the most effective strategy for reducing all abnormal suckling behaviors both before and during weaning.

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The take-home message is that, in addition to increasing the quantity of milk fed, there are options for simple adjustments in how calves are fed either starter or milk to reduce cross-sucking. Using a starter bottle was intuitive to calves and did not come at the expense of total starter intake or the ability to eat from a bucket. Furthermore, the starter bottle helped reduce cross-sucking when calves were fed milk in open buckets. Nonetheless, the best strategy for reducing a variety of abnormal suckling behaviors is to feed milk through slow-flow teats instead of open buckets.  end mark

This study was supported by the USDA National Food and Agriculture Hatch project #1018457. We are grateful to the Coburn Company for their in-kind gift of Milk Bar teat buckets and  Braden Start bottles.

References omitted but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

PHOTO: In addition increasing to the quantity of milk fed, there are options for simple adjustments in how calves are fed either starter or milk to reduce cross-sucking. Using a starter bottle was intuitive to calves and did not come at the expense of total starter intake or the ability to eat from a bucket. Photo by Rekia Salter.

Jennifer Van Os
  • Jennifer Van Os

  • Assistant Professor
  • Extension Specialist in Animal Welfare
  • Department of Animal and Dairy Sciences
  • University of Wisconsin – Madison
  • Email Jennifer Van Os

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