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

Genomics and Feed Efficiency: Local research with global implications

By Emilie Belage, University of Guelph in collaboration with Dr. Filippo Miglior, Canadian Dairy Network and co-PI on the project entitled, Increasing feed efficiency and reducing methane emissions through genomics: A new promising goal for the Canadian dairy industry.

The field of genomics has the potential to not only improve the dairy industry at the herd level, but it has implications at national and global levels. A cutting-edge Canadian initiative, led by Dr. Filippo Miglior, of the University of Guelph, in collaboration with Dr. Paul Stothard, of the University of Alberta, seeks to understand how genomics impact feed efficiency and reduce methane production in dairy cattle in a 10-year project launched in 2015. Thanks to the relationship between producers and researchers involved in this project, the researchers and industry expect producers will be able to select for more efficient, less costly animals, while preserving the environment for future generations.

original_424459801What is genomics? 

Genomics is the study of the entirety of genes in a living organism. It helps us understand how genes interact to produce growth and development in an animal or plant. In dairy cows, it helps producers identify which cows have desirable traits, like high production, good reproduction or longevity, which can be passed onto offspring.


Importance of genomics and feed efficiency for producers and the planet

Feed is one of the main costs on a dairy farm. Having cows that can convert feed into milk more efficiently is beneficial for the bottom-line and the environment: farmers can select and breed for cows that produce more milk with less feed. What this also means, is that fewer crops need to be grown to feed the same number of animals, potentially freeing cropland for other purposes. Cows that eat less also produce less manure and less methane, an important greenhouse gas (GHG). This is not only important for manure management, as there is less manure that needs to be stored, but it also has implications on the environmental footprint dairy farms have today.  Food production that is environmentally sustainable is becoming more and more important for consumers. There is increased concern and awareness of how the agricultural sector contributes to GHG emissions like methane, and its role in global warming. Dairy farmers’ investment in this research is innovative – by selecting for cattle that produce less methane, dairy farmers can do their part in addressing climate change now and in the future.

Data collection for accuracy of predictions

To be able to select for the feed efficiency trait, investigators needed to collect a lot of different phenotypes (i.e. the observable characteristics) and genotypes (i.e. genetic constitution) from cattle to be able to distinguish which animals are more efficient at converting feed into milk. Using prediction equations, they can look at the genotype from a young animal and predict early on whether that animal will be feed efficient or not. Feed efficiency and methane emissions are expensive traits to measure. It requires highly specialized equipment to accurately measure these phenotypes. With the arrival of genomics, researchers can measure those traits on a small number of animals, and then extrapolate the results on all genotyped populations, which reduces the costs.

Researchers also need a large amount of data to make accurate predictions in genomics, which is why they are collaborating with other countries for this project. The funding provided by Genome Canada, in collaboration with dairy farm organizations and other funders, gives the Canadian dairy sector the ability to measure these phenotypes, but also has the input of expertise from other countries that are also collecting data on these traits, allowing Canada to test its prediction equations for accuracy. Thus, without genomics and without the data consolidation from other countries, it would be impossible to consider feed efficiency and methane emissions in genetic selection strategies.

Real-time farm involvement in the research

 SunAlta Dairy in Ponoka, Alberta is a participating dairy in this project. The Brouwer family was in the middle of building a new free-stall barn for 450 cows and agreed to install the necessary research equipment that measures feed intake for each of the cows. By collaborating with researchers, the Brouwers are able to get a first-hand impression of the value of the research and the value of genomics. “It brings research to the farm so producers can see that the work researchers do has real-life applications and benefits. Producers get to observe these benefits first-hand”, says Dr. Filippo Miglior. Getting data from a commercial herd also allows “real-life” data to be included in the analyses. This allows investigators to get more data (since a commercial herd is often bigger than a research herd at a university research station), and gives them data from a different environment than a research herd, an environment where cows are managed in “real-time” on a dairy farm. Results from this type of research are therefore directly applicable to other commercial herds.

Future application of results for the Canadian dairy industry

Results from this research can also be applied to herd management. The plan is for selection indexes to be produced, so that farmers can select for animals that are more feed efficient and lower methane emitters. Genomic evaluation for the novel traits will be developed at the Canadian Dairy Network. This research group believes that the addition of those traits will increase the rate of genotyping of young females at the herd level for replacement decisions. The amount of time needed to collect data is significant, which explains the length of the project (10 years). However, the investment is so unique, producers will see results over the long term and for generations to come. The benefits of this research also align with the proAction environmental targets: reduce GHG emissions related to milk production, and the impact on land needed to produce milk. The usefulness of this research will become more relevant over time by breeding for dairy cows that are much more efficient than the ones we have today.


Dairy research in the spotlight at the 2017 Western Canadian Dairy Seminar

The Dairy Research Cluster sponsored this year’s student presentations at the Western Canadian Dairy Seminar in March. Over 900 people, including dairy farmers, researchers, students and stakeholders attended the Seminar in Red Deer, Alberta from March 8-10, 2017. Visits at the dairy research booth were high and the DFC “squeeze cow” giveaway was a popular item with our visitors!

 WCDS Student Presentation Competition Results 

On March 9th, five graduate students presented their research findings in a special session at the Seminar. A panel of judges selected the best presentations as follows. To access a copy of the student’s abstract, click on the link provided. (NOTE: Abstracts are available in English only).

1st Place: Amanda Fischer, University of Alberta Effect of Delaying Colostrum Feeding on Passive Transfer and Intestinal Bacterial Colonization in Neonatal Male Holstein Calves

2nd Place: Meagan King, University of Guelph – Fresh Cow Illness Detection Using Milk and Rumination Data in Robotic Milking Systems

3rd Place: Tony Bruinje, University of Alberta – Milk Progesterone Profiles Before and After AI and Their Association with Pregnancy and Pregnancy Loss in Alberta Dairy Farms

Runner Up: Augusto Madureira, University of British Columbia –  Early Post-Partum Physical Activity and Estrus Expression and their Associations with Fertility and Ovulation Rate in Lactating Dairy Cows

Runner Up: Katarzyna Burakowska, University of Saskatchewan – Use of Canola Meal and Micro-Encapsulated Sodium Butyrate in Starter Feed for Dairy Calves

Students’ posters showcase extent of scientific knowledge in dairy 

Listed below are a selection of student posters from the Universities of British Columbia and Calgary, that received financial support from DFC investments in research. A complete copy of the WCDS proceedings will be available online soon and include all student poster abstracts.

Dairy Cattle Health


Celebrating women in dairy science on International Woman’s Day at the WCDS

The Dairy Research team tweeted photos of some of the many women working in dairy science in Canada to celebrate International Women’s Day at the WCDS on March 8th. It was a pleasure talking to many women studying and working in the areas of animal welfare, reproduction, infectious diseases, and mastitis to advance Canadian dairy knowledge and innovation!


Controlling bovine infectious diseases: Canadian research teams aim to produce beneficial results for farmers


Dr. Herman Barkema, Industrial Research Chair in Infectious Diseases of Dairy Cattle (IRC-IDDC) at the University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine has been the Senior Industrial Research Chairholder since April of 2014. The research program of the IRC-IDDC focuses on Johne’s disease and mastitis.

Industrial Research Chair – An industry partnership

Dr. Barkema ensures that every facet of this prestigious research partnership funded by the dairy industry (Alberta Milk, Dairy Farmers of Canada, Westgen Endowment Fund, CanWest DHI, Dairy Farmers of Manitoba, the BC Dairy Association, and the Canadian Dairy Network) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) of Canada will maximally benefit Canadian dairy producers.

Johne’s prevention and control

MSc. student Dominique Carson is investigating Johne’s disease in young stock.
PhD. student Carolyn Corbett is investigating calf-to-calf transmission of Johne’s.

A key element in the strategy to achieving eradication of Johne’s disease from the Canadian dairy herd is the adoption of prevention and control practices by dairy farmers. The results of a recent study by Dr. Barkema and his team reveal that “one-size-fits-all” recommendations for these practices will rarely be sufficient for farmers, and that more personal approaches are needed to tailor recommendations to a farmer’s specific situation.

Moreover, Dr. Barkema’s studies indicate that calf-to-calf transmission of the disease-causing pathogen Mycobacterium avium subspecies paratuberculosis (MAP) can occur, especially in calves housed in groups.

Better understanding the bacteria causing mastitis

In his work as lead of the environment research theme in the Canadian Bovine Mastitis and Milk Quality Research Network (CBMQRN), Dr. Barkema realised that although coagulase-negative staphylococci (CNS) comprise the most common group of bacteria found in udders of lactating cows in Canada, little is actually known about them. Preliminary results from Dr. Barkema’s research indicate that the total prevalence of this group of bacteria is 10%. Some CNS isolates actually inhibit growth of major Gram-positive mastitis pathogens such as Staphylococcus aureus, which might be able to be exploited commercially to reduce mastitis in dairy cows.

Research Chairs – A training ground for the next generation of scientists

Left to right: Students Diego Nobrega, PhD.,  Larissa Condas, MSc., and Dominique   Carson, MSc.

The training of the next generation of researchers and extension personnel represents an additional benefit to the dairy industry from the IRC-IDDC. The graduate and summer students and postdoctoral fellows working with Dr. Barkema’s team are the boots on the ground and the gloves in the lab carrying out the numerous experiments needed to produce beneficial results for producers.

For the remainder of the 5-year IRC-IDDC, Dr. Barkema and his team will complete the projects currently underway in Johne’s disease and mastitis and will share their research findings in Canada and across the globe with dairy farmers, extension practitioners and government representatives.

Dr. Shannon L. Tracey is from Cross the “T” Consulting. Dr. Herman Barkema is professor of epidemiology of infectious diseases at the University of Calgary’s faculty of veterinary medicine, and holds a joint appointment in the Cumming School of Medicine. He is also a guest professor at Ghent University in Belgium. Barkema leads the environment research theme in the Canadian Bovine Mastitis and Milk Quality Research Network, the Alberta Johne’s Disease Initiative, the Alberta Inflammatory Bowel Disease Consortium, the Clinical Research Unit of the Cumming School of Medicine, the University of Calgary Biostatistics Centre, and the technical committee of the Canadian Voluntary Johne’s Disease Program.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”: milking management and mastitis prevention

By Emilie Belage, MSc., (U. of Guelph) in collaboration with Dr. David Kelton (U. of Guelph), Amy Westlund (SPARK writer, U. of Guelph) and Hélène Poirier (Transfer Office, CBMQRN)

Dairy farmers have been dealing with mastitis for decades, and according to research, it’s one of the most costly diseases to the industry: about $4 million in losses each year according to the Canadian Bovine Mastitis and Milk Quality Research Network (CBMQRN).

Dr. David Kelton, researcher at University of Guelph is leading a research project, funded by the Dairy Research Cluster 2, on impediments to adoption of best milking practices. His masters student Emilie Belage working on the project, held four focus groups in Ontario, in the spring of 2016, to investigate why producers adopt certain mastitis prevention practices and not others. The aim of the study was to identify barriers preventing producers from effectively following a number of established best harvest practices at milking time. Each focus group consisted of up to 10 local dairy producers, who were interviewed in a group setting about their mastitis prevention practices and milking routine.

During the group discussions, some producers indicated that they lacked sufficient information or wanted more information about why certain practices were important and needed, especially when it came to training employees. Others questioned the usefulness or ease of implementation of some practices. Some mentioned if they had proof the practices worked and would increase their milk quality, they would consider including them in their current routine.

They found when it comes to udder health, risk perception influences management. In fact, producers’ ideas and perceptions regarding milk quality, as well as low SCC, influenced their motivation for prevention of mastitis on their farm.  For instance, some producers reported their goal was to maintain a bulk tank SCC of 100,000 cells/mL or lower year round if possible. Other producers preferred focusing their efforts on other issues, like lameness or transition, as long as their bulk tank SCC was between 200 and 300,000 cells/mL. It seemed that to most producers, if mastitis was not a current issue on their farm, they were less likely to prioritize it.

By nature, milking is a routine activity: habits and consistency are an important part of milking procedures. However, good and bad habits are hard to break, and perhaps without some kind of motivation (penalty or incentive) or re-training, farmers who are already producing, by definition, good quality milk (i.e. BTSCC of less than 400,000 cells/mL) will see no reason to change, or adapt their behaviour. In fact, most producers agree that “if their routine ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” However, producers shouldn’t be afraid to implement some of the recommended milking practices they may not be using. These guidelines were developed based on research and practices like wearing gloves at milking time, using automatic take-offs, and using a post-milking teat dip have been shown to prevent elevations in SCC.

The_UdderZone_final_Page_12-791x1024In fact, most producers agree that “if their routine ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” However, producers shouldn’t be afraid to implement some of the recommended milking practices they may not be using for mastitis prevention.


Kelton and Belage hope the findings will help to promote better access to information and knowledge in the industry, like designing new educational programs or tools that producers and their employees can use.


For more information about the project contact Emilie Belage at

This project is an initiative of the Canadian Mastitis and Milk Quality Research Network,  supported by a contribution from the Dairy Research Cluster Initiative (Dairy Farmers of Canada, Agriculture and Agri‐Food Canada, the Canadian Dairy Network and the Canadian Dairy Commission).

Status of Alberta dairy hoof health and how footbaths can help us improve it

By Dr. Karin Orsel, Emilie Belage {The original article entitled, WHAT CANADIAN COWS ARE TELLING US ABOUT FOOTBATHS by Karen Orsel appeared in the Blog Dairy Hoof Health

The University of Calgary Lameness Research Team has been hard at work studying the use and effectiveness of footbaths on Alberta dairies. While there is progress to be made in proper usage, the good news is results indicate footbaths are an effective tool in decreasing the prevalence of digital dermatitis (DD).

The Alberta Dairy Hoof Health Project collected data of 158 dairy farms. A total of over 40,000 cows were presented to the hoof-trimmer, and they found approximately 50% of cows had a claw lesion. Digital dermatitis (43%) was the most common, followed by non-infectious causes like sole ulcer (17%) and white line disease (15%).

The cause of most infectious claw lesions (DD, interdigital dermatitis, foot rot, heel horn erosions) is often multifactorial, but hygiene is very important to prevent these types of lesions. Footbaths play a very important role in control and prevention of infectious hoof diseases.

The research team evaluated some critical aspects of a functional footbath: dimensions, refreshing and refilling of solutions, and product(s) used. They found most footbaths in Alberta fell short of the recommended dimensions: often too short, too wide and not deep enough. However, they found most provided enough coverage to dunk the entire cow’s foot (more than 10 cm of coverage). Most Alberta dairies were using footbaths more than twice a week and product was refreshed after every 200 cows, according to recommendations. As for products used, copper sulphate was most commonly used on dairies as their main protocol, but some used formalin or a combination of both products.

This research team also investigated how implementing a standardized footbath protocol affected the prevalence of DD infections. The farms that used an intensive copper sulfate footbath protocol had less cows with active lesions and saw an improvement of present DD lesion stages, compared to farms with less specific and less frequent protocols regardless of product used.

“The optimal frequency of footbath use to maintain low DD occurrence, appears to be more than twice per week, regardless of which product is used”, says the main investigator on the team.

This research shows when footbaths are well designed and carefully used, the prevalence of active DD lesions considerably decreases.

 More research is underway to discover which footbath products successfully balance the health of the animals, humans and environment. The University of Calgary, in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin, is also studying in the lab how footbath solutions impact bacteria that cause foot lesions like digital dermatitis.

The University of Calgary Lameness Research Team includes Dr. Herman Barkema, Ed Pajor, Gordon Atkins, Laura Solano, Casey Jacobs, Emily Morabito and Charlotte Pickel.

For more results and resources from the Alberta Dairy Hoof Health Project, visit

Key findings from studying footpaths:

  • Footbaths are an important component of claw health management.
  • Footbath location should allow undisrupted cow flow, and preferably allow passage of young-stock, dry cows and new additions to the herd.
  • Footbaths should have proper dimensions (3 to 3.7 m long, 0.5 to 0.6 m wide, with a 28 cm step-in height).
  •  Not all products available are equally effective.
  • Adequate frequency of use, and product concentration are essential.
  • Contamination of the footbath by manure reduces the effectiveness.
  • In low temperatures, the solution is less effective (especially formalin).

How a vaccine for S. aureus was discovered by a Canadian scientist

By Hélène Poirier, Transfer Agent, Mastitis Network – Interview with Dr. François Malouin, University of Sherbrooke, member of the Canadian Bovine Mastitis and Milk Quality Research Network.

PI Dr. François Malouin, assisted by TransferTech at the University of Sherbrooke, signed an agreement with multinational Bayer for the development of the vaccine. Photo credit: University of Sherbrooke

What were your primary research objectives when you started looking at S. aureus as a causal agent for mastitis?

The 2006 study that became a precursor for the development of the new vaccine was initially undertaken as a fundamental research project. Nothing could have predicted that 10 years later we would have a patent for the vaccine and another patent in the works, and that we can now announce that the vaccine is at an advanced stage of development with Bayer.

The S. aureus bacterium is found in many animal species as well as in humans, where it can colonize the skin and the respiratory tract, as well as other areas of the body. As a researcher, I had already conducted research on S. aureus in patients suffering from cystic fibrosis, who often suffer from persistent pulmonary infections caused by the bacterium.

Pierre Lacasse, a researcher with the Sherbrooke Research and Development Centre (Agriculture Canada) and a member of the Canadian Bovine Mastitis and Milk Quality Research Network, told me that the dairy industry could benefit from my expertise on S. aureus. That’s when I joined the national research group. The first research project for which I obtained financing1  focused on characterizing the bacterium in a context of intramammary infection. This meant being able to define which components (tools) the bacterium uses to cause an infection, and most importantly, to specifically cause an infection of the udder. We already knew that these tools, which are also called virulence factors (toxins, colonization factors, etc.), are often specific to the affected tissue during the infection. It’s rarely possible to efficiently observe the expression of virulence factors in a laboratory test tube, but in this case, we wanted to see how the bacterium behaves when it directly intrudes into the mammary gland tissues of dairy cows. Without this knowledge about the bacterium, in this specific context, we cannot determine how to effectively control it. It would be an exercise in futility!

What were your first clues, your first discoveries?

We succeeded in defining the transcriptome, i.e. in identifying the series of genes expressed by S. aureus in a context of udder infection. The bacterium uses these genes to produce components (tools). We established the list of tools employed by four S. aureus strains commonly found in Canada. They were found to be very distinct from those used in other infection contexts. The use of genomics enabled us to show that these tools are common to all catalogued strains of S. aureus around the world. At the time, our team used the expression: ‘’That’s it! We’ve exposed the villain!’’

How did you come up with the idea of developing a vaccine?

We realized that because we knew the specific weapons used by the enemy during a mastitis infection, we had the basis of a potentially very effective vaccine.

How does it work?

Once identified and integrated into a vaccine, the components specific to S. aureus are likely to provoke a very targeted immune response in dairy cows, which will protect them from all S. aureus strains. This approach differs from previous attempts to develop a vaccine against this contagious pathogen. It differs in terms of the relevance of components used in the vaccine (specific to the udder infection) and in terms of the potential coverage of all mastitis-causing strains.

Has the vaccine’s efficacy been demonstrated?

The trials conducted with mice and then with dairy cows were conclusive. Vaccinated cows, despite being experimentally exposed to a severe infection, showed less symptoms and a lower SCC. In addition, they maintained milk quality and production comparable to the control group. We believe that when it comes to naturally acquired infections, the vaccine’s efficacy would be even higher. Evidently, such a vaccine will not be able to prevent 100% of infections, but we do believe that it will significantly reduce the prevalence of S. aureus infections in dairy herds.

What additional steps are needed before the vaccine is marketed?

The success of our trials attracted the attention of pharmaceutical giant Bayer and an agreement was concluded in 2016 to begin development of the vaccine. The next step is the mass production of the vaccine. Clinical trials in dairy herds, in natural infection conditions, will then be conducted.

When can we expect to start using the vaccine on dairy farms?

The vaccine will be available to dairy farms within three to five years. Given the need to reduce the use of antibiotics in dairy farming and to produce more organic milk to satisfy demand, the use of a vaccine to prevent infection by S. aureus is the way forward. Our team2 is proud of its contribution!

  1. This research was financed by the NSERC, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Dairy Farmers of Canada and Novalait inc. as part of the Canadian Bovine Mastitis and Milk Quality Research Network (CBMQRN). A subsequent grant obtained from the Dairy Research Cluster, an initiative of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Dairy Farmers of Canada and the Canadian Dairy Commission, then contributed to the second phase of this extensive project. The CBMQRN is a national research network that includes about ten research institutions working together to improve the health of the mammary gland in dairy cows.
  2. Here is the list of individuals who contributed to identifying the virulence factors of S. aureus and developing the vaccine, and who are continuing work on the vaccine development:

François Malouin’s laboratory, University of Sherbrooke:
Céline Ster, research professional
Marianne Allard, then doctoral candidate
Christian Lebeau Jacob, then M. Sc. candidate
Julie Côté-Gravel, then M. Sc. candidate, now doctoral candidate
Diana Vanessa Bran-Barrera, then B. Sc. intern, now M. Sc. candidate
Charles Isabelle, then B. Sc. intern, now M. Sc. candidate
Mélina Cyrenne, then B. Sc. intern, now M. Sc. candidate
Eric Brouillette, research professional
Brian G. Talbot, professor (now retired)
Julie Beaulieu, B. Sc. intern
Alexis Dubé-Duquette, B. Sc. intern

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada:
Pierre Lacasse, researcher (Sherbrooke)
Moussa Sory Diarra, researcher (Guelph)

University of Montreal:
Daniel Scholl, professor (now with South Dakota State University)