Automated calf feeding systems are increasing in use across the United States, yet information regarding health and mortality outcomes of animals in these systems is limited. The objective of this study was to investigate the relationship between farm management practices, housing, and environmental factors with mortality and health treatment rates of preweaned dairy calves housed in groups with automated feeding systems. Farm records were collected for health treatments and mortality on 26 farms in the Upper Midwest of the United States. Relationships between factors of interest and mortality or treatment rate were calculated using a correlation analysis. Overall median annual mortality rate was 2.6 (interquartile range = 3.6; range = 0.24-13.4%), and 57% of farms reported mortality rates below 3%/yr. Farms that disinfected the navels of newborn calves had lower mortality rate (mean = 3.0%; standard error = 0.8; 78% of farms) than farms that did not disinfect (mean = 7.3%; standard error = 1.6; 22% of farms). Farm size (number of cows on site) was negatively associated [correlation coefficient (r) = -0.53], whereas the age range in calf groups was positively associated (r = 0.58) with mortality rate. Average serum total protein concentration tended to be negatively associated with annual mortality rate (r = -0.39; median = 5.4; range = 5.0-6.4 g/dL). Health treatment rate was positively associated with coliform bacterial count in feeder tube milk samples [r = 0.45; mean ± standard deviation (SD) = 6.45 ± 4.50 ln(cfu/mL)] and the age of calves at grouping (r = 0.50; mean ± SD = 5.1 ± 3.6 d). A positive trend was detected for coliform bacterial count of feeder mixing tank milk samples [r = 0.37; mean ± SD = 3.2 ± 6.4 ln(cfu/mL)] and calf age at weaning (r = 0.37, mean ± SD = 57.4 ± 9.6 d). Seasonal patterns indicated that winter was the season of highest treatment rate. Taken together, these results indicate that, although automated feeding systems can achieve mortality rates below the US average, improvements are needed in fundamental calf care practices, such as colostrum management and preventing bacterial contamination of the liquid diet and the calf environment.
Keywords: automated feeder; calf health treatment rate; calf mortality rate.
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