A Multi-disciplinary Approach Towards Improving Surplus Calf Care on Dairy Farms

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Wilson, Devon

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University of Guelph


This thesis was conducted to determine how neonatal calf care practices are employed on dairy farms and explore strategies that could be used to motivate improvements. Additionally, we aimed to understand in which circumstances benchmarking could motivate dairy producers to adopt better care practices for surplus and replacement calves. First, a qualitative focus group study explored producer perspectives on their surplus and replacement calf care. Producers experienced barriers to calf care including a lack of clarity on best management practices and prioritization of resources to the lactating herd. Motivating factors included feeling morally obligated to their calves, along with societal and industry expectations. Producers who kept their surplus calves longer felt the cost of neonatal care was worthwhile whereas those selling calves at a young age felt frustrated by a lack of compensation for providing good care. Quantitative evidence collected from a survey of dairy producers showed room for increased uptake of best management practices for colostrum and milk feeding for all calves, and that a minority of farms provided discrepant care to surplus calves. Survey respondents suggested surplus calf care improvements would follow financial incentives and feedback from their calf buyer. Additionally, the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Dairy Cattle and the guidance of their herd veterinarian would impact adoption of new practices. A cross sectional study evaluating surplus calves at an assembly facility found that 24% of calves had poor serum total protein concentrations (an indicator of immunity), with better results in crossbred beef calves compared to dairy bred calves. Qualitative analysis was used to evaluate how benchmarking can be used to motivate improved calf care. Most farms were anticipating or considering making a change to their calf management following receiving benchmark data on their calves from their herd veterinarian. This was influenced by farm contexts including (1) farm resources (2) calf productivity (3) management strategies and (4) the producer’s personal values. Depending on these contexts, benchmarking sparked change through providing resources (illustrative data and veterinary advice) and influencing producer decision making. This work provides guidance for motivating improved calf care on dairy farms.



Neonatal calf care, Dairy farms, Surplus and replacement calves, Best management practices, Benchmarking


Wilson, D. J., J. A. Pempek, S. M. Roche, K. C. Creutzinger, S. R. Locke, G. Habing, K. L. Proudfoot, K. A. George, and D. L. Renaud. 2021. A focus group study of Ontario dairy producer per-spectives on neonatal care of male and female calves. J. Dairy Sci. 104:6080�??6095. https://doi.org/10.3168/jds.2020-19507.
D.J. Wilson, J.A. Pempek, T. Cheng, G. Habing, K.L. Proudfoot, C.B. Winder, D.L. Renaud. 2022. A survey of male and female dairy calf care practices and opportunities for change. J. Dairy Sci. 106: 703-717.https://doi.org/10.3168/jds.2022-22238