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UF/IFAS Calf Buddy Study

Transcription from Video Above

Dr. Emily Miller-Cushon: Florida is the largest dairy-producing state in the southeast. Right now we have about 75 licensed dairy farms. So you have just over about 100,000 cows and maybe around 60,000 young calves and heifers.

Historically, calves have been housed individually to ensure the health of the baby calf and to reduce the transmission of disease, but increasingly received from research and practical experience that group housing calves don’t need to negatively affect the health of the baby calf. So in our research, we’re looking at the effects of different housing styles for young calves, or housing calves individually in pairs, and also in larger social groups during the pre-weaning period. So this research is unique and that we’re able to enroll these calves in different housing treatments and follow them until they eventually have their own calf and enter the lactating herd and be able to see what kind of effects early life social contact has on how they adapt to that transition, and what kind of health and productivity we can expect from calves in relation with that early experience.

As calves develop, they experienced a lot of transitions. So how an animal responds to those changes and copes with those changes has implications for its welfare. And from what we see of the early effects of social contact on calf development, we predict that those calves raised with social interaction will eventually be able to adapt more easily to those changes throughout their life. It’s a win-win situation where the cow that is less reactive to that novel environment and able to learn about it more easily is less stressed by it and has an improved emotional state, and it’s also likely to produce more milk. So it’s beneficial for both the cow and the producer to have animals that adapt easily to these transitions through their life.

Ultimately, this contributes to the sustainability of the dairy industry by allowing for efficient production of milk while optimizing Animal Health and Welfare and also aligning with consumer demand for what they require of animals that we’re caring for. This is a long-term research project that’s hard to imagine being able to conduct without long-term funding support which we’ve received from the USDA NIFA foundational program. As an early career scientist, this was a really important opportunity for me to be able to focus on a project that I was really excited about but does require a long time to finish and a lot of time and effort going into it in my lab are also really interested in how we can use behavior to provide insight into how animals feeling or their emotional state.

So we can use behavior as an indicator of welfare as well as facilitating the development of behavior that improves welfare.