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Animal care includes providing dairy cattle with opportunities for important behaviours

Jennifer Van Os for Progressive Dairy Published on 30 April 2020

As long as a cow or calf is healthy and productive, she has good well-being, right?

No, not necessarily.



An animal’s welfare – how well she is faring – also includes how she’s feeling. For the animal, feeling well has to do with more than her bodily health. Is she feeling poorly due to pain, fear or frustration, or is she experiencing positive, rewarding feelings?

One factor that can affect how an animal feels is her “behavioural well-being,” meaning: Does she have appropriate opportunities to perform important behaviours for her species? The opportunity to perform a wide range of natural behaviours is something that’s inherently important for cattle welfare. In many instances, providing behavioural opportunities to our dairy cattle can also lead us to win-win situations through improved cattle performance or productivity, consumer perception, or both.

Grooming brushes for cattle of all ages

Providing cattle of all ages with brushes to use for grooming is an example of a behavioural outlet that can create multiple wins for a dairy operation.

In the last few years, it’s become increasingly popular for dairy producers to buy brushes for their adult cows (Photo 1).

A cow uses a rotating machanical brush


Many producers have told me they decided to invest in brushes mainly to improve cattle hygiene – they like seeing clean cows, which benefits the dairy operation.

However, brushes also improve behavioural well-being. A recent Canadian study found that lactating cows would put forth great effort – pushing heavy gates – to gain access to a rotating mechanical brush. This tells us that a brush is an important resource to them. Consumers can easily recognize how much cows enjoy using the brushes when they watch a YouTube video or tour a dairy farm. This example highlights an opportunity for producers to showcase to the public how we care for our cows by providing them with outlets for important behaviours.

Grooming is an important natural behaviour that cattle begin showing very early in life. Some companies now offer rotating mechanical brushes specifically designed for youngstock. A recent New Zealand study with 2-week-old calves found they used these brushes daily.

What about providing simple, nonrotating brushes for grooming? We asked this question in a study we recently conducted at the University of British Columbia in Canada. We mounted 10-inch deck scrub brushes from the hardware store on the walls of group pens for post-weaning heifers, who had never seen brushes before. When the heifers were first moved to the new pens, it took them less than four minutes on average to begin using the brushes – and some approached them after only eight seconds! This told us that young cattle willingly use simple options for grooming. Our University of Wisconsin (UW) heifer-raising facility in Marshfield, Wisconsin, now provides these simple brushes for our animals (Photo 2).

Weaned dairy heifers are given wall-mounted, deck scrub brushes

Social companionship for calves pre-weaning

Housing calves with social partners pre-weaning is another example where addressing a behavioral need can create multiple wins for dairy producers.


In the last decade, several studies have demonstrated that – when managed well – raising pre-weaned calves in pairs or small groups has many benefits for both calf welfare and performance. Housing calves in groups requires an increase in total space, which allows for the expression of a wider range of natural behaviours, including playing. Having social contact early in life helps calves learn about appropriate social interactions with others of their species and also improves their cognitive development.

For example, calves raised with social companions show better flexibility and adaptability to change, including a greater willingness to try new feeds such as hay and total mixed ration (TMR). This translates into better resilience to weaning stress.

Across a dozen studies, socially raised calves outperform single calves in terms of either solid feed intake (by 0.1 to 0.5 kilogram per day pre-weaning or 0.3 to 1 kilogram per day post-weaning), bodyweight at weaning (by 2 to 4 kilograms), average daily gain (by 0.1 kilogram) or a combination of these measures. This performance boost is especially apparent when pair or group raising is combined with higher milk allowances. Solid feed intake before weaning is important for stimulating rumen function, and better early life growth translates to earlier onset of puberty and higher milk production at maturity.

The many upsides of pair or group raising have been demonstrated in study after study, but some producers have voiced reservations about the potential for calves to engage in cross-sucking on each other’s teats, navels or ears. Cross-sucking is an undesirable expression of calves’ strong natural motivation to suckle.

Providing more appropriate outlets for suckling behaviour can reduce the incidence of cross-sucking. Strategies include feeding milk through a teat (such as a bottle, teat bucket or automatic feeder) instead of an open bucket, or providing “dummy” or “dry” teats. These objects need to remain accessible to the calves for at least 20 minutes after each milk meal. Cross-sucking has also been observed to increase right after weaning, presumably in response to a drop in energy intake during this stressful transition. Calves who are better established on solid feed before weaning show less of a drop in intake, so step-down weaning, particularly when based on starter intake rather than calf age, can help reduce cross-sucking.

Increasing behavioural opportunities is good for the animal, the farm and the consumer

The way we house and manage dairy cattle affects not only their productivity and health, but also whether they have appropriate outlets for important behaviours and how they feel as a result. Grooming is an important natural behaviour for dairy cattle of all ages. Adult cows will expend considerable effort for the opportunity to use rotating mechanical brushes, and young heifers willingly use both rotating and simple brushes.

For calves, social companionship before weaning has many benefits for their development and performance. Calves have a strong motivation to suckle and providing appropriate outlets can reduce undesirable forms of this behaviour. These examples show how increasing behavioural opportunities can often benefit cattle performance directly while also improving animal welfare and demonstrating our commitment to animal care to the public.  end mark

PHOTO 1: A cow uses a rotating mechanical brush at the University of British Columbia Dairy Education and Research Centre in Agassiz, British Columbia. Photo by Jennifer Van Os.

PHOTO 2: Weaned dairy heifers are given wall-mounted, 10-inch deck scrub brushes at the University of Wisconsin heifer-raising facility in Marshfield, Wisconsin. Photo by Nancy Esser.

Jennifer Van Os is an assistant professor and extension specialist with the Department of Dairy Science at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Email Jennifer Van Os.