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ImproCalf - Improvement of veal calf health through adaption of rearing conditions on dairy farms

Title OriginalImproCalf - Verbesserung der Mastkälbergesundheit durch Anpassung der Aufzuchtbedingungen auf dem Geburtsbetrieb

Each year, around  250’000, predominantly male, calves are fattened on Swiss farms. On the fattening farms, the rate of morbidity, mortality and antibiotic use are high. In this transdisciplinary research project, the rearing conditions on the dairy farms will be improved. The awareness and strategies of milk producers, fatteners, veterinarians and other stakeholders will be investigated with a mixed-methods study. Based on current veterinary research results, a strategy for dealing with calves on the farm of birth ("ImproCalf") will be developed, which is (a) based on scientifically supported reduction of risk factors, (b) including solutions of the stakeholders, and (c) deemed viable.

In an on-farm study, calves will be raised on the farms of their birth and randomly distributed into two groups to be (a) reared the standard way or (b) reared using the ImproCalf-Strategy until their transfer to a fattening farm. The groups will be compared based on performance, morbidity, mortality and the administration of medication. The project is executed as a PhD project.

Detailed Description

The overall objective of this  project is to improve veal calf health both on (dairy) farms of birth and on veal calf farms. Therefore, we aim to develop and test an improved rearing strategy (“ImproCalf”) for veal calves on dairy farms to enable an optimized starting point when they arrive at the veal calf farms. The strategy will be based on the combination of recent scientific knowledge regarding epidemiology, immunology and pathophysiology of calf diseases and the views, knowledge and needs of (a) dairy, veal calf and cattle fattening farmers, (b) veterinary practitioners specialised in calf health, and (c) further stakeholders such as traders, abattoirs, veal processors, retailers and consumers.

In this project, we will ensure that the ImproCalf strategy contributes to reducing risk factors through the collaboration of social scientists, veterinary scientists, veterinary practitioners, milk producers and veal calf farmers.

This transdisciplinary research approach is implemented because it can address problem fields in such a way that it can grasp the complexity of problems, take into account the diversity of the real-life situations and scientific perceptions of problems and link abstract and case-specific knowledge (Pohl and Hirsch Hadorn, 2008).

The project is designed in three parts: (Part A) state of knowledge, (Part B) producer perspective and ImproCalf strategy development and (Part C) on-farm trials. The project will be extended by additional two parts (Parts D and E) that are complementary to this proposal and for which further funding will be found.

Part A: State of knowledge
In an initial phase of the project, up to 8 semi-structured expert interviews with key informants will be performed to gain an overview of the existing situation with regard to common practices and especially the potential for accepting new methods. The interviews include veterinary practitioners specialised in calf health, veterinary scientists, veal traders, and other relevant stakeholders such as representatives of farmers’ associations (e.g. SKMV, SMP).

Part B: Producer perspective and ImproCalf strategy
Part B will consist of focussed interviews with 15-18 farmers that will be supplemented by a quantitative method: The Q-methodology that reveals different social perspectives. The justification of the methodology and sample size is outlined in the following paragraphs.

Confirmatory workshops
The outcomes of Part A and the interviews of Part B will be summarized in a first of its kind scientific manuscript on the socio-economic impacts on calf fatting in Switzerland, and will also contribute to the development of the ImproCalf- strategy. Therefore, in a first confirmatory step, the results of both parts will be presented and dis-cussed during a one-day transdisciplinary workshop with experts from different professions (including farmers, veterinarians, traders, veal processors and retailers) to weight the significance and feasibility of the different proposed measures for improving calves health from different perspectives.

Part C: On-farm trials
In this on-farm study, male calves (which are intended for transfer to veal calf productions) on dairy farms will be raised:

  • (a) according to the established standard protocol (e.g. colostrum uncontrolled ad libitum; feeding regime: 2 times daily 2.5 kg of milk, hay and concentrates ad libitum) or
  • (b) using the ImproCalf strategy until transfer to the veal calf farm  (e.g. colostrum uncontrolled ad libitum; ad libitum intake of milk, hay and concentrates, intranasal vaccination at an age of 10 days and further measures; taking views, knowledge and needs of different stakeholder groups into consideration, in particular dairy and veal calf farmers).

We will select dairy farms that keep high-yielding breeds such as Holstein Friesian, Red Holstein, Brown Swiss or Swiss Fleckvieh and have an average milk yield of > 7’000 kg/cow per year. After their first few weeks on the dairy farm, the calves will be transported directly from the dairy farm to the veal calf farm under optimal conditions (tempered transport, less than 4 hours of transporting). The respective veal calf farms will be professional farms with high management standards, and will fatten the project calves under comparable conditions. Both groups (standard protocol and ImproCalf strategy) will be compared based on performance, morbidity, mortality and the administration of medication. To ensure a close cooperation, all project farms will be visited frequently. Furthermore, all farm veterinarians (a) will be informed about and (b) have to agree with the project aims.

Financing/ Donor
  • Bundesamt für Lebensmittelsicherheit und Veterinärwesen BLV
  • Eidgenössische Fachkommission für Biologische Sicherheit EFBS
Project Advisory Board
  • Prof. Dr. med. vet. Martin Kaske, Rindergesundheitsdienst, Vetsuisse-Fakultät, Zürich
  • Dr. med. vet. Corinne Bähler, Kälberpraxis, Rickenbach
FiBL project leader/ contact
FiBL project staff
Role of FiBL


FiBL project number 50072
Date modified 12.11.2019
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