Chair on the Sustainable Life of Dairy Cattle

Dr. Elsa Vasseur of McGill University has held the Chair on the Sustainable Life of Dairy Cattle at McGill University for over a year. Novalait has produced a new video providing an overview of the work underway on behalf of Canada’s dairy farmers! Click on the link to watch it now: Dr. Elsa Vasseur – Chair, Sustainable Life of Dairy Cattle.


Chair Investment:  The total partner investment in this research is over $1.6 million for five years  and includes investments from the the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Novalait, McGill University, Dairy Farmers of Canada and Valacta.

Research Themes

The research falls under three major themes. The Cow Comfort and Management theme will address tie-stall systems (given their current prominence) and examine solutions for the transition to freestall systems, for dairy farmers who wish to examine that option, from the point of view of animal comfort, management and potential economic benefits.

The Cow Longevity theme will assess the economic impact of risk factors for cow longevity related to management, housing, cow comfort and health, on the lifetime profit at the individual and herd level, and build decision-support tools to improve overall farm management, profit, and cow welfare and longevity, specifically by investigating i) Lifetime Profitability; ii) Rearing of Animals; and iii) Early Detection Indicators of Longevity.

The Environment and Society theme aims to understand, anticipate and prevent potential conflicts and solutions that would benefit both cow welfare and longevity (e.g., key practices and management systems identified in Research Themes 1 and 2), but that could counterbalance the overall sustainability of the farm and the farming system, by negatively affecting environmental impact and social acceptability.


Automatic milking systems: factors affecting health, productivity and welfare


The adoption of automatic milking systems (AMS) is increasing year after year across Canada. According to Dr. Ed Pajor, Anderson-Chisholm Chair in Animal Care and Welfare in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of the University of Calgary, “Canadian dairy producers want to know in advance what to expect if they make the transition to AMS.”

Dr. Pajor and his graduate student, Ms. Christine Tse, conducted a study funded under the Dairy Research Cluster program with producers who had already transitioned to this new system. They surveyed 200 Canadian dairy producers to document their perceptions of the effect of transitioning to AMS on their farm.

The average farm participating in this study had 51 lactating cows per milking robot and two AMS units per dairy farm. Almost all producers surveyed (81%) reported increased milk yield with little change in milk quality after transitioning to AMS. More than half (55%) of producers built a new barn and 47% said they changed housing systems.

For the majority of producers, their cleaning and feeding practices remained unchanged. Most producers perceived that all the information provided by the robots about each animal made it easier to detect lameness or illness in their cows.

Most producers noted lameness either decreased or stayed the same after introducing AMS, and detecting lame cows was facilitated by the automatic detection in AMS. They also noted having AMS allowed more time to observe cows, thus enhancing lameness detection. One potential note of caution is changing the housing system at the same time as transitioning to AMS seemed to lead to more reports of increased lameness. This suggests the change in cow locomotion after switching from tiestall to freestall in tandem with the installation of an AMS has a greater impact on lameness than simply introducing a new milking system.

The vast majority (87%) of producers reported either a decrease or no change in the rate of clinical mastitis, and about two-thirds of producers reported that the conception rate increased with AMS.

Almost all producers agreed that AMS improved their quality of life in terms of more flexibility, less physically-demanding work, and easier employee management.

“Overall, producers reported to us that the transition to AMS met their expectations and increased the profitability of their operation. In addition, they would recommend AMS to other producers,” affirmed Dr. Pajor.

Author:  Shannon L. Tracey, Ph.D., Cross the “T” Consulting

Automatic milk feeders: how stall design may be affecting your calves’ transition to feeding

Group housing of dairy calves is becoming more popular, and so are automatic milk feeders (AMF). Some of the reasons producers choose to use this new technology include: addressing calf health and welfare concerns; and reducing labour while still providing calves with enough milk to reach their growth potential. Automatic milk feeders also offer producers the option to monitor each calf’s milk intake, and thus more easily detect and identify calves that may be sick thanks to alarms integrated in the system.

One of the challenges producers face with automatic milking feeders is teaching calves to interact with and learn to use the feeders. Some calves have more difficulty learning to use them and this can cause a decrease in milk consumption and potentially lead to slow-growing or sick calves.

A study by the University of Guelph (financed under the Dairy Research Cluster program) aimed to compare how stall design and training methods affected calf interactions with the automatic milk feeders. Tanya Wilson, the graduate student leading the project under the supervision of Dr. Derek Haley, compared two types of stalls commonly installed with the feeders. The goal was to see if calves learned to use one type better than the other. Their initial hypothesis was that calves would take a longer time approaching solid stalls constructed of white plastic without some type of assistance, compared to a metal-gated stall design.

They enrolled 147 Holstein calves from the Elora Livestock Research and Innovation Center -Dairy facility. The calves were at least 4 days old when they were introduced to group-housing with AMF. They were assigned to one type of stall design and then trained to use the automatic milk feeders by the researchers by allowing them to suck on the trainer’s fingers and guiding them to the teat on the feeder. Some calves were trained on feeders with solid stalls (Figure 1) and others were trained on metal-gated stalls (Figure 2). Researchers recorded the behaviour of calves for 3 days using video cameras, and then used the data from the feeders to determine how long calves took to approach the feeders and how often and how much they drank.

What they found was that calves assigned to the gated-stall design took twice as long to approach the feeding stall compared to calves assigned to the solid sides. They took longer to lick or bite at the nipple, and it took them more time to drink voluntarily from the metal-gated feeders. Calves using the feeders with a solid stall design learnt much quicker to enter and use the nipple. Overall calves drank anywhere from 8 to 34 litres in the 72 hours they were observed. The researchers also found that how easily a calf learned during their initial training interacted with stall-design and affected milk intake in calves. Those trained on the gated-style feeder consumed an average of 3.18 litres less than calves trained on the solid-style feeder.

Thanks to this study, researchers have some evidence that specific features of automatic milk feeders can impact how well calves learn to use them, which in turn impacts how much milk they consume, with potential repercussions on calves’ health and welfare. Producers should be aware how stall design might affect their efforts for calf rearing and be mindful some calves may need more training for a more successful transition to feeding.

Authors: Emilie Belage, MSc., University of Guelph and Tanya Wilson, a Master of Science student in the Department of Population Medicine at University of Guelph