A three year BBSRC-supported Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP) between the University of Liverpool's Institute of Ageing and Chronic Disease and Tesco Plc has resulted in the improvement of the health, welfare, and long-term productivity of dairy calves, through the development of a novel rearing strategy.
For KTP Associate Gemma Curtis, the attraction to the scheme was that it would allow her to make a real impact on the long-term well-being and productivity of dairy cows. Calves are currently reared on 'least cost' principles, with minimal milk-feeding and early weaning to solid foods. This has been described by some as maintaining the calf in 'a state of chronic hunger'. As well as repercussions on calf health and welfare, human studies suggest that underfeeding the newborn is a major risk factor for metabolic disease in the adult.
In collaboration with partnering researchers at the University of Liverpool, Gemma compared the performance of Holstein dairy calves reared conventionally with restricted access to milk to those granted ad libitum access. She monitored calf performance and health from birth to the time of first breeding and measured variables that included: growth (weight, height and body length and circumference measures); body condition; body composition (using CT scanning); udder development; food and milk intakes aspects of nutrient metabolism, and other measures of health status (utilising blood plasma and serum). She also undertook a UK-wide survey of current calf rearing practises.
The benefits of ad libitum access to milk-feeding were immediately clear. Calves reared in line with this new strategy gained weight quickly, whilst those reared in the conventional way failed to grow during the first two weeks of life. The development of these calves will continue to be monitored throughout adult life to produce long-term findings. Gemma will disseminate the results of the KTP study to the 650 dairy farmers who form Tesco's supply chain – the Tesco Sustainable Dairy Group (TSDG) – through a series of workshops and via Tesco's online Producer Network, emphasising that the long-term health benefits for the calves also have a clear long-term cost benefit.
Gemma Curtis, KTP Associate, University of Liverpool, said: "The results of this KTP have the potential to have a huge impact on dairy farming. The research illustrates that allowing unrestricted access to milk replacer from birth means cows can be put in calf more quickly, which means both that they will be productive earlier and produce more milk than those reared in the conventional way."
Graham Wilkinson, Agriculture manager – Dairy Category, Tesco, said: "For Tesco, the results of the partnership offer us the opportunity to share best practice with our TSDG members and drive improvements through the supply chain. The KTP project has helped us understand an area which has previously seen little research and in-depth focus. It has enabled us to attribute the potential changes to financial performance which will be a key driver in delivering change throughout the supply-base."
There were also multiple benefits for the university and specifically, the academic partner. It is expected that five manuscripts will be published in Science and Veterinary journals as a result of the research, while Gemma is completing a PhD linked to the partnership, further enhancing the University's research profile. Dr Argo affirms that the study has provided material for teaching in Animal Husbandry and Reproduction, and for undergraduate projects, as well as providing further research opportunities.
Dr Caroline Argo, Senior Lecturer in Equine Reproduction & Animal Science, University of Liverpool, said: "The KTP has generated a very well described cohort of animals who will be monitored for life. This provides further research opportunities in the department."
The Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (75%) and the Innovate UK (25%).
Commenting on the results, BBSRC's Chief Executive Jackie Hunter said: "It is great to see industry and academia coming together to find new ways of improving animal welfare and food production. This is a clear demonstration of the KTP delivering a real impact and benefit for industry and consumers."