Applied Animal Behaviour Science 128 (2010) 23–29
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Applied Animal Behaviour Science
journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/applanim
Changes in suckling behaviour of dairy calves nursed by their dam
during the ﬁrst month post partum
Lena M. Lidfors a,∗ , Jens Jung a , Anne Marie de Passillé b
Department of Animal Environment and Health, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, P.O. Box 234, SE-532 23 Skara, Sweden
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, P.O. Box 1000, Agassiz, BC V0 M 1A0, Canada
a r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c t
Article history: We observed housed dairy calves nursed by their dam to examine the development of
Accepted 10 September 2010 sucking, teat change, butting, manipulating and other behaviours during the ﬁrst four weeks
Available online 20 October 2010
post partum. The study herd was kept in a deep litter system with access to an out-door
area. The nursing cows were milked two to three times daily and calves could suckle them
Keywords: at will. Twelve cow–calf pairs were followed to obtain video recordings of two nursings per
pair at 7, 14 and 28 days post partum. Videos were analysed for the duration and frequency
of all observable behaviours within a nursing.
Butting The nursings lasted on average 7.2 min ranging from 2.8 to 16.3 min. Sucking made up 66%
Teat use of the total nursing time and occurred throughout the nursing. Total sucking and butting
were higher at the beginning of the nursing and decreased towards the end. Older calves
had longer nursing durations (p < 0.01), spent more time sucking (p < 0.05) and less time
pausing (close p < 0.05). Older calves performed less butting (p < 0.01) and tended to release
the teat more often (p < 0.1). In 86.6% of the nursings calves only sucked on one or two teats.
The percentage of the nursing time spent sucking on a preferred teat tended to be lower
in older calves (p < 0.1). The sucking rate averaged 2.1 mouth movements per second, and
each calf had its own steady rate. No cross-sucking events were observed between calves.
The behaviour of the calves suggests that the cows’ milk production was higher than the
© 2010 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
1. Introduction Anderberg, 2001) and such systems have been reported to
function quite satisfactorily (Grøndahl et al., 2007).
In modern dairy farms, calves are usually separated Nursing systems are reported to have a number of
from their dam soon after birth. However, in organic sys- advantages: higher total milk production from the nurs-
tems, because milk feeding of calves is required up to 12 ing and milked cows (Bar-Peled et al., 1995) and improved
weeks of age (KRAV Standards, 2010), there is a grow- udder health for the nursing cows (Walsh, 1974; Everitt
ing interest to let calves being nursed by their dam or a and Philips, 1971) as well as improved weight gain (Metz,
nurse cow. In fact, in extensive dairy systems, calves either 1987; Fröberg, 2008; de Passillé et al., 2008; Roth et al.,
nurse a cow ad libitum or twice daily (Hartmann, 1994; 2009) and health of the calf (Krohn, 2001; Fröberg et al.,
2008). Additionally, Foldager and Krohn (1991) found that
calves that had nursed during the ﬁrst 6–10 weeks post
partum produced more milk during their ﬁrst lactation.
∗ Corresponding author at: Department of Animal Environment and
The increased milk production of the nursing cow may
Health, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, P.O. Box 234, SE-532
be due to the calf’s ability to better stimulate and empty
23 Skara, Sweden. Tel.: +46 511 67 215; fax: +46 511 67 204.
E-mail address: Lena.Lidfors@hmh.slu.se (L.M. Lidfors). the cow’s udder. In fact, oxytocin is higher in dairy cows
0168-1591/$ – see front matter © 2010 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
24 L.M. Lidfors et al. / Applied Animal Behaviour Science 128 (2010) 23–29
during nursing than during milking (Lupoli et al., 2001; de access to a pasture further out from the end of April. There
Passillé et al., 2008). The better calf growth and health is were 82 multiparous and 16 primiparous cows and about
probably due to the fact that the calves can drink more milk 20 calves simultaneously in the herd. The calves were born
from the dam than they get in most traditional calf rearing in the loose housing (see Lidfors et al., 1994b) and could
operations (de Passillé et al., 2008). suckle their dam ad libitum until four weeks of age, only
From studies on the behaviour of calves while nursing separated at milking (for a maximum of 30 min). At four
beef cattle (Mayntz, 1993; Lidfors et al., 1994a; Mayntz and weeks of age, the calves were separated from the dam and
Costa, 1998) and non-milked dairy cattle (Mayntz, 1996) brought into a calf group where they were teat-fed milk
three phases have been reported to occur during a nursing. until 8 weeks of age. An equal mix of Swedish Friesian Cat-
The ﬁrst phase (pre-stimulation) consists of short suck- tle (SLB) and Swedish Red and White Cattle (SRB) made up
ing bouts associated with a relatively high frequency of the herd. The cows had ad libitum access to grass silage
butting; in the second phase (milk intake) sucking bouts and could eat straw from the litter as well as grass in the
are much longer and rhythmical and butting frequency is meadow starting end of April. The cows were individually
low; in the third phase (post-stimulation) sucking bouts are fed concentrate at milking, and milked either twice or three
short and butting frequency is ﬁrst high and then decreas- times daily in a separate barn, which was placed 10–20 m
ing. The post-stimulating phase is regarded as a sign of from the loose housing. The cows walked into the barn in
declining milk ﬂow (Lidfors et al., 1994a; Mayntz and Costa, groups of 28 cows and were tied during a maximum of
1998), and may not occur in high yielding cattle when the 30 min for the milking.
udder is not completely emptied. The suckling behaviour of twelve heifer calves
There is little detailed information available on the (6 purebred: 3 SLB, 3 SRB and 6 cross-bred: SLB
behaviour of young calves during nursings on milked dairy mother × Limousine father) was observed at 7 (±1),
cattle. In one study, dairy calves were shown to do more 14 (±2) and 28 (±2) days of age. The pure-bred as well
butting, switch teats more often and spend more time as the crossbred calves were born to multiparous dams
sucking when milk was limited, and it was concluded (parity 2–8) averaging a yearly milk production of 6900 kg.
that longer nursing bouts were not a reliable indicator of All twelve dams had previously nursed one of their own
higher milk intake (de Passillé and Rushen, 2006). How- young. During the experiment, ﬁve of the dams were
ever, little attention has been given to how much sucking, milked twice a day and seven dams three times a day due
butting, pauses, teat changes, licking, stripping and other to that the farmer changed the milking frequency in the
teat manipulation behaviours occur during a nursing. Con- middle of the study.
sequently, little is known about how each of the suckling
behaviours are expressed in calves that have free access to 2.2. Behavioural recordings
their high producing dam, how these behaviours change
over the nursing and if their frequency and sequence vary A focal calf was followed, without human interference,
with nursing bout length and with aging during the ﬁrst by foot at a minimum of 3 m distance during daylight until
week after birth. a nursing occurred. The observer was known to cows and
To our knowledge there is no detailed information on calves as the observer spent a lot of time with them in quiet
nursing behaviour when calves have ad libitum access to observation. Two complete nursings of each cow–calf pair
suckle milked high yielding dairy cows. In such a system, per age class were ﬁlmed with a portable video camera at a
we expected that calves should not be limited in milk intake distance of about 3 m. Decoding of the video recordings of
and the behaviours they express during a nursing should be a nursing started when the calf ﬁrst had a teat in its mouth,
reﬂective of a satisﬁed calf i.e. the optimal situation. Such and ended with the last observed contact with the udder
knowledge will be helpful to differentiate normal from (nursing duration). Total time spent sucking is presented as
problem nursings. the percentage of total nursing duration. Nursings shorter
The aim of this study was to describe in detail the than 2.5 min were not included, because they were not long
sucking, butting, teat change and other teat manipula- enough to give the calves enough time to show the different
tion behaviours occurring during nursings on high yielding phases of a nursing that previous studies have shown that
dairy cows, to examine how age of the calf (ﬁrst month post they have (see Lidfors et al., 1994a). A total of 67 nursings
partum) could affect the behaviours of the calf during the are included in the analysis with no missing data.
suckling bouts. The duration in s/min and frequency/min of the following
behaviours were recorded continuously during the whole
2. Materials and methods nursing:
2.1. Animals and management - Sucking: the teat was in the calf’s mouth as it performed
sucking movements for more than 3.5 s. Cut-off time was
The study was carried out over 4 months in spring/early based on previous observations that if the calf kept a teat
summer (March–July 1993) on a commercial dairy farm in its mouth for less than 3 s, the calf usually lets go of the
in southwest of Sweden (58◦ 27 49 N, 13◦ 19 54 E). The teat and changes teats, if longer it was usually for much
animals were kept in an un-insulated wooden loose longer and this involved milk swallowing (see Lidfors et
housing building on 1700 m2 of deep wheat straw litter al., 1994a; Mayntz and Costa, 1998). The teat sucked was
(17.3 m2 /cow). Additionally, the cows could walk out to a identiﬁed each time the calf changed teat so that the %
small paddock at the end of the building at all times and got sucking on preferred teat could be calculated.
L.M. Lidfors et al. / Applied Animal Behaviour Science 128 (2010) 23–29 25
- Manipulating: the calf’s muzzle was in contact with a teat 14
and it sucked or had a teat in its mouth for less than 3.5 s
at a time, as well as butted, licked or stripped the teat. 12
Frequency of nursings
- Close: the calf’s muzzle was off the teat for more than
3.5 s, but was <10 cm from a teat. 10
- Away: the calf’s muzzle was >10 cm from a teat.
- Pause: the calf’s muzzle was off the teat for more than
3.5 s, i.e. close + away.
The frequency/min of the following behaviours were 4
recorded as events. These events were recorded without
interrupting the duration of the ongoing behaviour for 2
which both duration and frequency were measured:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18
- Butting: the calf made a stroke with the muzzle towards Nursing duration (min)
the teats or udder.
- Teat-release: the calf lets go of the teat during sucking for Fig. 1. Frequency distribution according to nursing duration in minutes
in dairy calves when kept with their mother in loose housing.
less than 3.5 s.
- Teat in mouth: the calf took a teat in its mouth and sucked
for less than 3.5 s. breed effects. The following model was used:
- Teat-change: the calf started sucking on another teat. Behaviour = Breed Age Age × Breed Repetition Repetition
- Licking: the calf’s tongue was stretched out and licked a
teat. × Breed Repetition × Age Repetition
- Stripping: the calf pulled the teat downward or sideways
× Breed × Age
before releasing it.
- Sucking rate: number of sucking movements per s was The factor Repetition represents the two nursings that were
calculated by using the time the calf took to do 20–40 observed for each calf at each age (7, 14 and 28 days).
consecutive sucking movements within each minute of The repeated statement included Age and Repetition and
the nursing. the subject was Calf. There were few signiﬁcant effects of
Repetition, so this factor will not be discussed further. In
all analysis we found no breed effects (Limousine or dairy
2.3. Ethical approval
breed father) on the nursing behaviour, so this will not be
The cattle were housed, fed and treated according to
Results from the statistical analysis are reported as least
the appropriate regulations in Sweden (DFS 2007:5, L100).
square means (LSM) with standard error (SE) given by the
Protocol and conduct of this study was approved by the
Ethical Committee on Animal Experiments, Gothenburg.
Pearson correlation coefﬁcients were calculated
between nursing duration and number of teats used,
2.4. Calculations and statistical analysis frequency of butting and proportion of sucking. Pearson
correlation coefﬁcients were also calculated between
Each of the behaviours of the calves was summarised proportion of time sucking and frequency of teat release,
for each minute of the nursing, so that the duration of frequency of teat changes, frequency of teat in mouth, pro-
the behaviours per minute could be used for further anal- portion of manipulate and number of teats used. Finally,
ysis. These are the values used in the statistical analysis Pearson correlation coefﬁcients were calculated between
and in the descriptive ﬁgures. Since nursing duration var- frequency of butting and number of teats used, frequency
ied, we illustrate the changes in behaviours through the of teat change, proportion of manipulating, frequency of
nursing with 2 examples, one for short (5 min, n = 13) and teat release and frequency of teat in mouth.
one for long (10 min, n = 7) nursing durations (Fig. 1). They
were taken from all ages and from a varying number of 3. Results
Since the last minute of a nursing rarely lasts 60 s (the The nursings lasted on average 7.2 min with a range
durations of that minute are normally distributed), we from 2.8 to 16.3 min. More than 80% of the nursings lasted
present durations of sucking, manipulating and pause as 5–11 min (Fig. 1). Sucking rate was very constant through-
percentage of total seconds of nursing in that minute. We out the nursing, averaging 2.09 ± 0.02 with a range of
did not adjust the frequencies of teat-change and butting. 1.70–2.44 sucks per s.
To account for varying nursing durations we report Sucking made up 66.4% of the total nursing duration,
average durations and frequencies of behaviours per manipulating the udder accounted for 9.8% and pause, i.e.
minute of nursing. These data were analysed using SAS ver- when the calf was not in contact with the udder accounted
sion 9.1 (SAS Institute Inc., Cary, NC, USA, 2002–2003). We for 22.2% (close 7.5%, away 17.7%). This pattern of sucking
used general mixed model (PROC MIXED) to test age and during the nursing was similar whatever the duration of
26 L.M. Lidfors et al. / Applied Animal Behaviour Science 128 (2010) 23–29
a 0.8 a 4
Proportion of the minute
0.5 Suck 2.5
0.4 Manip 2
0.3 Pause 1.5
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Minutes of the nursing Minutes of the nursing
b b 4
Proportion of the minute
Suck T change
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Minutes of the nursing
Minutes of the nursing
Fig. 3. Average frequency per minute for butting and teat changes by dairy
Fig. 2. Average proportion of each minute spent sucking, manipulating
calves when suckling their dam ad lib. in loose housing during a) a 5 min
and in pause by dairy calves when suckling their dam ad lib. in loose
nursing (n = 13) and b) a 10 min nursing (n = 7) between 7 and 28 days of
housing during a) a 5 min nursing (n = 13) and b) a 10 min nursing (n = 7)
age. These data were not analysed statistically.
between 7 and 28 days of age. These data were not analysed statistically.
whereas the rate of teat in mouth and teat release was the
the nursing or the age of the calves. Descriptive ﬁgures of highest at 28 days (Table 1).
the 5 and 10 min nursings show that the behaviour of the The percentage of a nursing spent sucking on the pre-
calf changed as the nursing progressed, especially at the ferred teat tended to be higher at 7 and 14 days than at 28
end of the nursing. Calves sucked most of the time during days (Table 1). On average calves sucked on one or two teats
the ﬁrst min, but this proportion tended to decrease dur- in 86.6% of the nursings (Fig. 4). Two teat nursings were
ing the following min of the nursing and then increased in more common than one teat nursings at 28 days (Fig. 4).
the last min (Fig. 2). As time spent sucking decreased, time The front teats were sucked 86.6% and the rear teats 13.4%
off the teats (pause) increased and time manipulating was of the observations, and there were no clear changes with
relatively constant (Fig. 2). Similar patterns were observed age (Rear teats: 7 days 20%, 14 days 4.3%, 28 days 16.7%).
for 5 and 10 min nursings (Fig. 2a, b). During a longer nursing calves did not use more
The calves perform around 1.5 butts/min during the teats (r = 0.18, n.s., n = 67) nor do more butts per minute
nursings, but it decreases towards the end in both 5 and (r = −0.01, n.s., n = 67), but they spent a greater proportion
10 min nursings (Fig. 3a, b). The number of teat changes was
low and constant during the 5 min nursings and increased
at the end for the 10 min nursings (Fig. 3a, b).
Licking the teat was infrequent, and had a mean occur-
rence of 0.28 ± 0.04 times during the whole nursing.
Stripping the teat was only observed during a mean of
0.02 ± 0.01 times during the whole nursing.
Nursings were signiﬁcantly longer at 28 than at 7 or
14 days (Table 1). Sucking rate did not change with age
As the calves got older they spent more time sucking
throughout the nursing and less time close to the teat
(Table 1). However, calves spent the same proportion of
time manipulating teats and being away from teats during
the nursing as they got older (Table 1).
Fig. 4. Percentage of nursings where dairy calves suckled on 1, 2, 3 or 4
The average frequency per min of sucking, manipulating
teats at 7 days (n = 20), 14 days (n = 23) and 28 days (n = 24) of age when
teats and teat change did not change with age (Table 1). The kept with their mother in loose housing. These data were not analysed
rate of butting and pause decreased from 7 to 28 days of age, statistically.
L.M. Lidfors et al. / Applied Animal Behaviour Science 128 (2010) 23–29 27
Calf behaviours occurring during a nursing at 7, 14 and 28 days of age (least square means ± SE, n = 12). Tested for signiﬁcant effects of age with general
mixed model (F-values with DF-values and P).
Behaviour 7 days 14 days 28 days Age effect
F2 ,20 P
Nursing duration (min) 6.52 ± 0.60 6.20 ± 0.64 8.77 ± 0.85 6.92 <0.01
Rate (sucks/s) 2.10 ± 0.04 2.12 ± 0.04 2.06 ± 0.04 1.86 n.s.
% of nursing duration
Sucking 61.20 ± 3.54 66.50 ± 2.84 72.80 ± 2.38 3.92 <0.05
Manipulating 11.49 ± 1.76 9.33 ± 1.19 8.83 ± 1.47 0.74 n.s.
Close 10.79 ± 2.13 7.91 ± 1.12 4.81 ± 0.93 5.61 <0.05
Away 19.73 ± 1.78 18.46 ± 2.23 14.55 ± 1.74 2.00 n.s.
Sucking 2.06 ± 0.22 2.25 ± 0.25 1.91 ± 0.17 1.25 n.s.
Manipulating 0.93 ± 0.18 0.80 ± 0.12 0.70 ± 0.10 0.89 n.s.
Pause 1.65 ± 0.19 1.58 ± 0.14 1.05 ± 0.11 6.39 <0.01
Butting 2.39 ± 0.31 1.33 ± 0.27 1.04 ± 0.16 7.87 <0.01
Teat in mouth 0.63 ± 0.13 0.50 ± 0.10 0.79 ± 0.11 4.05 <0.05
Teat release 1.04 ± 0.46 0.90 ± 0.22 1.66 ± 0.23 2.59 <0.1
Teat change 0.41 ± 0.13 0.53 ± 0.26 0.66 ± 0.21 1.23 n.s.
% Sucking on preferred teat 85.44 ± 4.32 90.00 ± 3.42 75.65 ± 5.17 3.14 <0.1
of time sucking (r = 0.39, P < 0.001, n = 67) than in shorter ﬂow/availability was not a limiting factor for these nurs-
nursings. ing calves. This could explain why nursings were relatively
When calves spent a greater proportion of time suck- short and behaviours leading to stimulation of the udder
ing during a nursing, they showed higher frequencies of were infrequent. Haley et al. (1998) found when milk
teat release (r = 0.60, P < 0.001), more teat changes (r = 0.30, ﬂow rate was experimentally manipulated, butting was
P < 0.05), held the teat in mouth more frequently (r = 0.59, increased if milk ﬂow slowed or stopped. However, they
P < 0.001) and manipulated the teat for longer (r = 0.55, also report that calves butted more during the ﬁrst minute
P < 0.001) but did not use more teats (r = 0.15, n.s., n = 67 than during the middle or ﬁnal minutes of their milk meal.
for all tests). Lidfors et al. (1994a) found that calves suckling primi-
When calves did more butts/min during a nursing they parous beef cows butted the most when milk ﬂow appeared
used more teats (r = 0.27, P < 0.05), changed teats more fre- to decline in the teats. However, in this study butting was
quently (r = 0.31, P < 0.05), spent a greater proportion of the relatively low and constant throughout the nursing and
nursing manipulating the teats (r = 0.25, P = 0.06) but this tended to drop towards the end, which might reﬂect that
behaviour was not related to the frequency of teat release the milk ﬂow was high enough for the calf throughout the
(r = 0.19, n.s.) or teat in the mouth (r = 0.09, n.s., n = 67 for nursing. If the calf required more milk it could change teat,
all tests). and the decline in butting towards the end of a nursing
might be a sign of the calf getting satiated.
4. Discussion The total nursing duration (7.2 min) in this study is
shorter than that found in previous studies (9–17 min) in
In this study the suckling behaviour of calves freely low-yielding cattle (Walker, 1962; Hutchison et al., 1962;
nursing high producing dairy cows that were milked rou- Wagnon, 1963; Nicol and Sharafeldin, 1975; Vitale et al.,
tinely was described. Calves sucked at a teat for two thirds 1986; Day et al., 1987; Lidfors et al., 1994a). Sucking took
of the nursing; the remaining of the time they performed up 60 to 70% of the total nursing, which could be explained
a number of behaviours that may play a role in stimu- by the fact that their dams were high yielding dairy cows.
lating milk release (Lupoli et al., 2001; de Passillé and In fact, Lidfors et al. (1994a) found that nutritive suck-
Rushen, 2006). We observed very little stripping and most ing (sucking bouts lasting more than 3.5 s) accounted for
of these milk release stimulation behaviours occurred at less than 35% of the nursing with calves sucking primi-
a low level suggesting that the calves were getting sufﬁ- parous beef cows. Also, these calves spent a lot more time in
cient milk without much effort (de Passillé and Rushen, behaviours that can stimulate milk release such as butting,
2006). The fact that these calves had shorter nursings than manipulating teats and changing teats. Similar ﬁndings are
beef calves and used only one or two teats vs. 3 or 4 for reported in de Passillé and Rushen (2006), when milk avail-
beef calves also supports this interpretation (Lidfors et al., ability was reduced by prior milking of the cow. In this
1994a). study there could also have been an effect of cows having
Calves have been shown to increase butting and teat been milked three times a day compared to twice a day, as
switching when milk ﬂow is reduced or stopped (Haley well as if the calves were nursing before or after the milk-
et al., 1998). They also do this readily on the cow when ing. However, we did not control for these effects in the
milk availability is reduced (butting: 0.7/min for high milk present study.
2.5/min for low milk; de Passillé and Rushen, 2006). Since The calves in this study were observed to start sucking
the average butting frequency was around one for the and swallowing milk within seconds of having approached
calves at 14 and 28 days of age, we suggest that milk the udder. In contrast beef calves took more than 1 min to
28 L.M. Lidfors et al. / Applied Animal Behaviour Science 128 (2010) 23–29
start sucking (Lidfors et al., 1994a). This suggests that, in the stimulation behaviours and sucked mostly on a preferred
present study, little stimulation of the cow was required to teat during a nursing. Such behaviour by the nursing calf
have milk let down. Because of this and the low level of would be indicative of a successful nursing as well as of
butting, we did not clearly see phase one of the nursing adequate milk intake over days by a well fed calf.
as previously reported (Lidfors et al., 1994a; Mayntz and
Costa, 1998). Similarly, phase three was not obvious in the
recorded behaviours, probably due to that the calves were Acknowledgements
satiated before the milk was ﬁnished in the sucked udder
quarter. We want to thank Lena Hinders and Roland Vidarsson
One striking result in this study is that calves mainly for letting us observe their cows and calves. We also want to
used one or two teats and spent between 75 and 90% of their thank Jean-Pierre Charuest, Niko Bernier and Steve Méthot
sucking time on the preferred teat. This indicates that a lot at the Dairy and Swine Research and Development Centre
of milk was available in the udder of these cows. In fact de in Lennoxville for data and statistical analyses. Financial
Passillé and Rushen (2006) demonstrated that dairy calves support was given by “The Brother Jonsson’ Fund” and by
spent 62% of the sucking time on their preferred teat when FORMAS.
a lot of milk was available, but only 37% of the sucking time
when milk availability was limiting. An additional expla- References
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