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J Dairy Sci. 2017 Jul;100(7):5642-5652. doi: 10.3168/jds.2016-12372. Epub 2017 May 3.

The association between daily average feeding behaviors and morbidity in automatically fed group-housed preweaned dairy calves.

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Department of Veterinary Population Medicine, University of Minnesota, St. Paul 55108. Electronic address:
Department of Veterinary Population Medicine, University of Minnesota, St. Paul 55108.
Department of Dairy Science, The Virginia Polytechnic and State University, Blacksburg 24061.


Group housing and computerized feeding of preweaned dairy calves is gaining popularity among dairy producers worldwide, yet disease incidence and detection remain a challenge in these systems. The aim of this prospective observational cohort study was to describe the relationship between morbidity and feeding behavior around the period of illness detection. Calves were enrolled upon entrance to the group pen on 10 farms in Minnesota (n = 4) and Virginia (n = 6) utilizing group housing and computerized feeding from February until October 2014. Morbidity and mortality events were recorded by the calf caregiver. Farms were visited either every week (Minnesota) or every other week (Virginia) to collect calf enrollment data, feeding behavior data, and health records. Daily average feeding behaviors (drinking speed, mL/min; daily consumption, L/d; rewarded visits to the feeder; and unrewarded visits to the feeder) were described both overall and for sick and healthy calf days. Multivariable mixed models were built to assess the differences in daily average feeding behaviors (drinking speed, daily consumption, rewarded visits, unrewarded visits) between matched sick and healthy calves around the time of an illness event (-10 to 10 d). Final models were controlled for calf age, region (Minnesota and Virginia), group size, disease diagnosis, the random effect of farm, and repeated measurements on calf. A stratified analysis was performed by both day from treatment event and disease diagnosis. We enrolled 1,052 calves representing 43,607 calf days over 9 mo. From these, 176 sick calves had a matched control and were carried forward to the matched pair analysis. Fifty-five percent of sick calves (97/176) were treated for diarrhea, 30% (53/176) were treated for pneumonia, and 15% (26/176) were treated for ill thrift. Sick calves drank 183 ± 27 mL/min (mean ± standard error) more slowly, drank 1.2 ± 0.6 L/d less, and had 3.1 ± 0.7 fewer unrewarded visits than control calves on the first day of treatment. These differences began up to 4 d before the calf was detected as sick, and persisted for 7 to 10 d after treatment. However, changes in feeding behaviors varied by disease diagnosed. Rewarded visits were not associated with morbidity status. The results of this study indicate that sick calves change their feeding behavior before and during an illness event, suggesting that feeding behavior may be a useful tool to detect disease onset.


calf health; feeding behavior; group housing

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