Stroke Your Calves For Better Weight Gain

Heifers that have a high average daily weight gain produce more milk later in life. So increasing a dairy heifer’s weight gain early on is a good thing. Making this happen doesn’t have to mean expensive feed. It could be as simple as spending 42 minutes of gently stroking and talking to a calf in its first 2 weeks of life.

Photo by Marc Decker
Photo by Marc Decker

Those results come to us from researcher Stephanie Lürzel and her colleagues from the Institute of Animal Husbandry and Welfare. Their study included 104 Holstein calves at a commercial dairy farm in eastern Germany. Half the animals were managed as usual. The other half were stroked on the lower neck for three minutes a day for 2 weeks after they were born. Earlier studies had shown that cows especially like being stroked on this spot, and their heart rates even fall when they’re stroked there. Ninety days later, the calves that had been stroked weighed 3 to 7% more than the control group. Since cows that gain weight more quickly before weaning produce more milk, the simply act of petting a young heifer could translate into at least 23 gallons more milk per cow.

Stroked calves were less afraid of people than the calves that had not had early interactions. But that changed when the calves were disbudded about 32 days after birth. Cauterizing horn buds with a heated iron without anaesthesia is a common procedure at dairy farms. The pain involved made both the stroked calves and control group more wary of humans. It took several weeks before the stroked calves became their old trusting selves again.

How can you use this information?

If you run a dairy and raise your own replacement heifers, pet them. You’ll both be happier, as stroking animals has also been shown to calm people and lower their heart rates. If you raise other livestock, you may not have opportunities to pet them when they’re young.  But you might think about the results of this study in whatever interactions you have with them. Gentle handling reduces stress on both animal and human and likely has similar effects on weight gain for a wide variety of livestock.  Just check out this week’s article by Whit Hibbard on The Case for Low Stress Livestock Handling for more about the economic importance of gentleness.

Want to read more? Here’s a link to the published paper.

And the how-to video? Well, we think this may be a little overboard, but we thought it was funny. 🙂 And it does give you the best indication of which spot on the neck the cow likes to be rubbed. If you head out to the pasture to try this out, do send video!

And for all our tablet folks, the link.


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