cows in field

Ask the Vet, May, 2023: How do you prevent cross suckling?

By Dayna Locitzer, DVM

Cross suckling sucks. It can lead to blind quarters and mastitis when nursed-on heifers freshen. I’ve seen fresh heifers come into a herd and start cross suckling on their lactating herdmates. One first calf heifer nursed on herself. That cow was quickly shipped. Managing cross suckling can feel like playing whack-a-mole. It certainly makes individual housing an attractive option. While individual housing is a viable option to raise calves, the industry is favoring group housing more and more –so it is best to tackle the problem rather than avoid it. It is important to understand natural behaviors and use them to your benefit to help prevent cross suckling.

Suckling is a natural behavior. It is instinctual and serves an important physiologic function. Once a newborn calf is standing, the first thing you want her to do is suckle. It is a signal to us that she is ok. When a calf suckles, the esophageal groove shifts. The esophageal groove is a fold of tissue that controls liquid flow into the stomach. When flexed, it shunts milk directly into the abomasum, avoiding the rumen and reticulum. The abomasum is the fourth chamber of the stomach. It is known as the true stomach because it is acidic like human stomachs and better suited to digest milk.

Calves also produce saliva while suckling. This saliva has enzymes and pH buffers that help with digestion during mealtime. For a calf with unlimited access to a lactating cow, either her own dam or a nurse cow, mealtime takes place about nine to twelve times a day. This means that between nine and twelve times a day, a calf is satisfying her urge to suckle and producing saliva. Dairy farmers can take advantage of these natural tendencies to help prevent cross suckling and grow healthier calves.

Most dairy farms bring milk to their calves two times a day. If you are experiencing cross suckling on your farm, consider feeding your calves three times a day. Though this is far from nine to twelve times, it will provide more time in the day for her to suckle. You can also do that by increasing the time she is drinking. Increased drinking time can be accomplished in two ways: by feeding more milk and by feeding milk through a nipple with an appropriate sized aperture. Calves should be fed a minimum of 10% of their body weight a day in fluid milk. This means that at about two weeks of age, they should be getting about 2 gallons of milk per day. This amount of milk will take time to consume–time that is being well spent satisfying her suckling instincts. If you use a mob feeder, you can even add warm water to it after the milk is gone so they spend more time suckling. In addition to increased nursing time, adding water also hydrates them and starts the cleaning process.

The milk will only take time to consume if the nipple on the feeding container (bottle, nipple bucket, mob feeder) has integrity. Slow feeder style nipples are the best option. Any that have cracks in them or have been manually enlarged by an inpatient human should be replaced. Slow feeder style nipples encourage an open-and-close movement of the mouth, promoting saliva production, esophageal groove adjustment, and slow drinking. They also help prevent aspiration. Though pail feeding has proven to be a safe way to feed calves, they are not satisfying their suckle needs. It has proven to increase the incidence of cross suckling compared with animals drinking milk via a nipple.

When manually feeding, there is a limit to the amount of times and quantity of milk that calves can be fed. To counteract these limits, you can provide the calves with a nipple attached to a bottle filled with a concentrate like grain or alfalfa pellets–for example, a Braden Bottle. This provides them with a productive object to suckle on. When milk is not available, they can nurse on this, potentially more attractive than their penmate’s immature udder or a pendulous umbilicus.

Cross suckling behavior characteristically occurs at a predictable time: after milk feeding. Knowing this timing can help you prevent it. After a milk meal, they are in a mad search for something else to put in their mouth, still craving the action of suckling. One tactic is to tie calves up during milk feeding and for about fifteen minutes after they are finished in order to prevent them from approaching their penmates. If you watch your calves closely, you’ll often see that there is one instigator of this bad behavior. If she is removed, either to a pen by herself or culled, the other calves may drop the cross suckling habit.

Lastly, a point on nose rings. The best nose rings have a means to block calves’ mouths from being able to suckle. Some nose rings have spikes on them, which may frustrate the calf being suckled on and lead them to walk away. But nose rings often fall out, or the calves figure out how to nurse with them on.

The nose ring method has varied success. But to be honest, all the tactics I’ve described have varied success. I’m sure many of you have tried one or more of these methods, or even a combination of them. Cross suckling can be a real battle. For a calf, suckling is very important when they are drinking milk. It’s when they suckle outside of mealtime that it becomes a nuisance. A multipronged approach with consideration of the physiology behind suckling is your best bet for stamping out this habit.