Automated calf feeding systems are becoming more common on US dairy farms. The objective of this study was to evaluate calf health in these systems and to identify risk factors associated with adverse health outcomes on farms in the Upper Midwest United States. Over an 18-mo period on bimonthly farm visits to 38 farms, calves (n = 10,179) were scored for attitude, ear, eye, and nasal health, as well as evidence of diarrhea (hide dirtiness score of perianal region, underside of the tail, and tailhead). For all health score categories, a score of 0 represented an apparently healthy animal. Rectal temperatures were taken in calves scoring a ≥2 in any category, and those with a temperature >39.4°C were categorized as having a fever (n = 550). Associations were determined between farm-level variables and health scores to identify risk factors for higher (worse) scores. All health outcomes were associated with season of measurement, with fall and winter seasons increasing the odds of a high health score or detected fever. High bacterial counts measured in the milk or milk replacer were associated with increased odds for higher attitude and ear scores, and higher odds for calves having a detected fever. Higher peak milk allowance (L/d) was associated with lower hide dirtiness score, whereas a longer period of time (d) to reach peak milk allowance was associated with increased odds of higher scores for attitude, ear, eye, and hide dirtiness, as well as fever. Higher fat content in milk was associated with increased odds of high eye score. Less space per calf (m2/calf) was associated with higher ear and eye scores, whereas larger group sizes were associated with increased odds of higher nasal score and decreased odds of higher hide dirtiness score. Rectangular pen shape was associated with decreased odds of higher eye score. Absence of a positive pressure ventilation tube was associated with increased odds of having a calf detected with a fever. Based on these results, we hypothesize that these factors could be managed to improve health outcomes for dairy calves on automated feeding systems.
Keywords: automated feeder; dairy calf; health; welfare.
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